To my firstborn, on the first day of her Senior year

When you walked into Parents’ Day Out as a two year old firecracker with a mop of curly blonde hair, you didn’t look back. “Bye, Mommy!” you said, and you marched right in and began to play. On the days I would linger to talk to your teacher or another mom, you would walk over and tell me, “you can go now.” I don’t remember a single instance during your toddler years or childhood when you experienced separation anxiety. You were fearless, independent, curious. You couldn’t wait to explore and learn and play.

Not much has changed.

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Today is your last first day, the beginning of your senior year of high school, the beginning of the end. And I’m okay. Really.

I’ve promised you I won’t cry this year—a promise we both know I probably won’t keep, despite my best intentions. This time next year, when you are packing boxes and loading your car, when we decorate your dorm room then drive away and return home without you, then all bets are off and all promises are null and void. I know and you know I will be a red hot mess.

But that’s a year away.

For the next twelve months, Dad and I will celebrate with you. You are not sad, so we will not be sad. We will not cast a shadow on your excitement. We will honor your years of hard work, of studying, of learning, of maturing. We will look at you in awe, amazed by this young woman we raised so well, in spite of ourselves. We will exhale with relief, knowing our many mistakes were miraculously and inexplicably redeemed. I mean, seriously: look at you!

And I’ve already told you: I am going to All The Things. I’m not going to miss one. I will attend every performance (even the repeat ones…probably), every concert, every meeting. I will chaperone (which I haven’t done since Nathan’s first grade field trip to the museum). Go ahead, roll your eyes. I don’t care. I’m not going to forfeit a minute. I’ve intentionally encouraged your independence all these years by not hovering, often to a fault. I may have been a teensy bit too uninvolved. Not this year. So you’re just going to have to accept that. Sorry.

And I’m probably going to hug you a lot. I’m going to tell you how much I love you, how proud I am, how you make me ridiculously happy, how your very existence allowed me to come alive and better understand the character and love of God.

But I’m not going to cry.

If you do see my eyes get red and watery, and if you notice my voice cracking, know that I’m crying not because I’m sad but because I am so stinkin’ proud of you. I’m probably thinking about all you’ve been through, all you’ve survived, the scars you wear, and the beauty that grew from them. I’m remembering those years when brokenness and doubt became your teachers. My tears are an offering of overwhelming thanks to God for answering a desperate mother’s prayer. Hold her tightly. She’s flailing. She’s so lost. She’s so sad. She’s so angry. Don’t let go. Oh God, hold her securely in your hand until she can rest.

If I’m crying, my tears are only tears of gratitude and joy and pride. Look at you! Look what God did!

I will cry because you are ready. You are so ready! You survived the darkest darkness, and you emerged strong and wise. Your faith is deeply rooted and watered, and your branches reach for the sun and bear sweet fruit. You love and serve with passion and justice and grace. For all our faults in being too hands-off, I think we did something right. We have no hesitation in sending you out into the world because we have seen you take care of yourself. We’ve sat back and watched you advocate for yourself, think for yourself, do what you’re supposed to do when you’re supposed to do it. We’ve sipped our tea while you’ve washed your clothes, prepared your food, budgeted your money, pumped your gas. We have purposely raised you to leave, and we’ve done a damn good job. (Sometimes I think we’ve done too well because you’re a little too anxious to jump out of our nest and fly far far away. And your fierce independence occasionally prevents you from asking for our help. This “raise an independent child” thing has come back to bite us in the ass.)

But I’m getting ahead of myself. That is a conversation to have next year, when I am allowed to cry.

For now, we will celebrate all you have become. We will cheer you on and take an obscene number of pictures.

Ready? (You are. I am. Most days. Yes. No. Maybe. Yes.)

Set?

Here we go…

The Next Right Thing

Here’s what I’ve learned: when everything and everyone around you is messy and complicated and uncertain, you sit in stillness and quiet, and you wait for the Next Right Thing.

It is both simple and complex. It is straightforward and mysterious.

But to bravely step into the NRT, as it will henceforth be known, is to step into wholeness and peace and joy, knowing you are precisely where you need to be. To bravely step into the NRT is to discover what Brian McLaren refers to as aliveness. The beauty and thrill steal your breath, the contentment bathes you with strength and equanimity.

This is what I have learned.

God has tilled the soil of our family and planted seeds of justice and mercy from the beginning. I vividly remember a distinct nudge while Michael and I were starry-eyed college students: Your home will be a safe place where Love is found. Even with ridiculously polar-opposite personalities, Michael and I share a love for hospitality and opening our home whenever we can to whoever needs it. Hosting guests in our home—whether it was our tiny newlywed apartment or our ginormous 5-bedroom McMansion—fuels us and energizes us and offers us a sense of purpose.

We have grown to know God as the master conductor, artistically and perfectly conducting a grand symphony of people and circumstances in a way that shows off his greatness.

We have been shaken from our sleepy, linear, 90s church culture and pushed forward into the Kingdom where Jesus lives among the least—the marginalized, the outcast, the forgotten—and we have learned to find him and join him in those places. We have learned that true religion is not how we follow the rules, but how greatly we love.

One of the top-priority goals for our kids is this: when they are grown and living their adult lives (not with us), if they ever reach a season of life when they are not serving and loving people well, they will be physically uncomfortable. I want justice and mercy so deeply ingrained into the marrow of their identity that they will be restless and unsatisfied until they jump back on the train.

That’s where Michael & I were last spring. After reading Interrupted in 2012 and launching into a life with new eyes and new passion, we reached a season of stagnancy. It happens. We still had the same fervor, but fewer outlets to expend it. So we began to pray, What next? Who do you want us to love? How do you want us to love? Where? When? We’re getting a little antsy. Show us the Next Right Thing.

Enter Embo.

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Embo came to our church several years ago, and she and Meghan became fast friends. Embo has spent most of her life being bounced and shifted and occasionally drop-kicked from foster homes to homeless shelters to friends’ homes, and back to foster homes again. Nomadic, unstable, and inconsistent doesn’t begin to describe her experience.

Yet this girl—this intelligent, strong, faith-filled, resilient girl—defied all the odds and graduated high school with honors last spring at age seventeen. (No one, including her, is exactly sure how she was able to graduate early, but her last high school counselor added up the credits from the 28 [that’s a real number] schools she attended and said she could. So she did.) College was the next logical step toward her goal of becoming Dr. Embo (and I have no doubt she will), but because she was still underage and still officially in the foster care system, her options were limited. She would have to be placed with another foster family with no guarantee for transportation to her classes.

Michael and I found out what was going on, and we looked at each other. This was a no-brainer. This was our NRT.

We talked about it and prayed about it. We talked to our kids, who all know her well. Everyone was on board (which is a total understatement. There was much rejoicing and whooping and cheering, as if we had announced we were moving to Disney World).

You would think it would be a harder decision. You would think there would be more back-and-forth, more weighing the options. There wasn’t. We just knew.

I mentioned the idea to her last summer, and at first I thought her silence meant hesitation. Not at all. She was just speechless…and really, really happy.

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My favorite novels often use chapter breaks to switch perspectives and tell the story from another character’s point of view. Let’s back up the truck for a minute.

Embo moved into her fourth foster home last spring, and like most, it was not a great situation. The weight of her experience—all of it—threatened to crush her, but she would have none of it. She began to write—raw, honest reflections on her identity, her family, the foster care system—with perspective and vision beyond her years.

About this time, Jen Hatmaker put together a launch team to review and promote her new book, For the Love (which, by the way, is a great read). Five thousand women applied, and 500 were chosen. Embo was one of them.

While the launch team met on a private Facebook page, those who were not chosen formed their own group to cheer on Jen and celebrate her book. They called themselves The #4500.

(I know, right??? Golden.)

Because writers write, Embo expressed her fear and grief and frustration one day in a blog post, then quietly shared a link on both the launch team and the #4500 pages.

This is where God starts showing off.

These precious women, including Jen herself, rallied around our girl like Mother Hens. They embraced her and loved her and cheered her on, they made sure she knew that they saw her, that she is not forgotten, that her life and her voice matter. Within this rich soil of abundant grace and love, Embo began to flourish. She courageously dared to have hope.

While Michael and I prayed for God to show us who to love, twelve hundred women began to pray and ask God to provide a home and a family for Embo.

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After the required background checks, calls to personal references, and a four-hour home study, a judge issued an order to declare We Belong To Each Other. Legally, she named us Temporary Possessory Conservators—but we prefer “family.” During Embo’s first week with us, I had exactly two moments of holy crap, we have four kids! This is right, right? We heard You correctly? We’re doing the right thing?…but then she missed dinner one night for a meeting, and her absence was palpable. We are not complete without her.

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Someone recently stopped me at church and thanked me for welcoming Embo into our family. Thank you, I replied, but honestly I feel like we should thank her. Our home has never been more alive. We’ve never encountered the presence of God more tangibly. Nothing has ever felt more right.

The NRT requires only one small step of courage. And knowing the NRT requires only your stillness and willingness to listen. I’m not a hero. I’m not some example to be lifted up and honored. I’m simply one woman inspired by great women to be still and be brave.

What is your NRT? It doesn’t have to be something huge, like adding another child to your family. It could be a phone call, or a job application, or a walk. It could be a beginning or an end or a choice to continue for one more day. It could be saying yes, or saying no. I’ll tell you mine: in a specific relationship, I need to bite my tongue and not be a jerk. Baby steps, man. It’s too much for me to be mushy and gushy and kind and sweet with this person. Not yet. I have to take the first step to simply shut my mouth. That I can do.

Be still, be quiet, be expectant. Ask for the next step. Only one step. Then courageously pick up your foot, just one foot, and move.

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PS: Our girl is well on her way to Adulting (it’s a verb). She’s taking a full load of classes at the community college while working both an internship and a part-time job. Our family is a safe, stable launch pad for her. We’re working on budgeting and time management and will soon teach her to drive so she can get her driver’s license when she turns 18 in the spring. My friend, Morgan, with the support of the launch team and the #4500, has started a fund for Embo to buy a reliable, low-mileage used car. When you’re being still and quiet and waiting for your NRT, would you ask God—or your inner voice or whoever is speaking to you—if investing in this amazing young world-changer is your NRT?

You can read more about Embo and her car fund here.

The polarity of stress

Three kids. Three schools. All of which dismiss at three o’clock.

This is what I’m dealing with. This pretty much summarizes the last three months—and also offers an excellent excuse for this being my first post in eight weeks.

I am drowning.

A giant whiteboard leans against the wall in my office. Every Sunday night, I write out who needs to be where on which day at what time. I’m juggling multiple choir rehearsals and dance rehearsals and soccer practices and piano lessons and church activities LIKE A BOSS. So far, no one has been stranded without a ride. So far.

But I am so, so tired.

Two weeks ago, I was supposed to run away from home. Michael had a meeting in Chicago, which is one of my favorite cities in the world, so we were planning to make it a date-weekend and reconnect, refresh, renew. Considering the chaos of our lives recently, Chicago was a carrot, a promise, our motivation for hanging on just a little while longer.

On the Tuesday before the Friday I was scheduled to leave, Nathan came home with a fever. No other symptoms. Just a low-grade fever and a little bitty cough that would not go away. All week, I hydrated him, oiled him, fed him, detoxed him—everything I could possibly do to help his body heal…quickly! I took him to the pediatrician, requested a strep test (negative), had him thoroughly examined. The doctor suspected a virus and sent us home.

In the meantime, Nathan is bouncing around singing, “Being sick is fun!” (I could not form words to respond. And I hid all the forks so I would not stab my eyeballs.) Even when his temperature continued to rise and stay over 101, he didn’t even have a headache, which was totally bizarre. I tested my thermometer on the other kids to make sure it was working.

On Thursday night, his temperature spiked over 104 and his cough was getting worse.

I cancelled my plane ticket.

And I stayed home. Instead of going to Chicago. Instead of date-weekend. Instead of a quiet hotel room with crisp white sheets and fluffy pillows. Instead of Michigan Avenue and museums and art galleries.

On Friday afternoon and evening, I made two trips to the AT&T store to activate my new phone and another trip to the Apple store when it wouldn’t work. In the middle of these trips, Meghan texted me from school to say she wasn’t feeling well and please come get her.

On Saturday afternoon, after watching a football game, Griffin was walking through the kitchen when he stopped abruptly and yelled, “OH CRAP!” because he had a Spanish project due on Monday. Which was assigned five weeks ago. Which he had not started.

That night, I gave King Dramaflair a dose of homeopathic cough medicine. He flailed and whined and fussed for ten minutes before he finally threw it back. Then he threw up.

On the rug.

On the hardwood floors.

On the tile.

Around the toilet.

As I was mopping up pink puke (alone, because Michael was in Chicago, at a cocktail party), Meghan texted me to come pick her up from a party (for which she had made a miraculous recovery after coming home from school early and taking a nap).

The next week, I made an appointment to have my car maintenanced, because this is what responsible grown-ups do. On the way, I got a speeding ticket. Then I arrived at the dealership, where the check-in guy looked at my car, recorded the mileage, and asked me why I was there. “Forty-five thousand mile maintenance,” I replied. He looked puzzled.

“None of your warning lights are on, and you just had an oil change. So we can do an inspection, but I think your car is fine.”

Apparently, regular maintenance is sooo 2005. You only have to bring your car in when it tells you there’s a problem. Who knew. So I sat in the waiting room for an hour and a half for the reassurance that my car does not need to be there.

I. Cannot. Handle. This.

Please pass the confetti and queso and pull up a chair for my pity party. It was a Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad…month.

Throughout these weeks, exhausted and spent, I would snuggle up on my Tempurpedic mattress and Egyptian cotton sheets, completely consumed with this book:

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Pages and pages and pages of stories about girls across the globe. Girls who are refused education. Girls who are sold into slavery. Girls who are sold into marriage before they achieve double digits. Girls who are trafficked. Girls whose tiny, underdeveloped bodies are so grossly injured during childbirth, who do not have access to healthcare providers or hospitals, who are outcast to the borders of their villages, left to die.  Girls who are discarded, abandoned, neglected, raped, beaten, starved.

My friends, in much of the world, this is the rule—not the exception. In much of the world, this is the expectation.

And yet, through various organizations, these girls are being lifted up, educated, and trained. Through the miraculous effort of a few brave voices saying this is not okay, entire communities are being elevated—because when women are given a voice and a seat at the table, everyone benefits.

So there I am, lying in my comfortable bed, on soft sheets. Safe. Fed. Educated. Reading about unimaginable injustice. Yet still exhausted from stress.

I procrastinated writing about this, hoping my muse would show up and reveal to me a neatly wrapped conclusion and a tidy application. I’m still waiting.

On one hand, stress is stress. Dealing with sick kids and unmet expectations and pink puke and driving 400 miles a week (I wish I were exaggerating)—those are all very real.

But what in the hell gives me the right to complain?

I spend hours and hours every week in the car and rarely travel more than five miles from my home. Because I have the freedom to drive. In my car. Whose monthly payment would feed and educate a third world family for a year.

My child was sick. And I took him to the doctor, gave him medicine and food and water so he would get well within a week.

I had to pick up my daughter early from school. In which she is freely educated and challenged and given opportunities most girls in the world don’t even know exist.

I spent hours trying to activate my new smartphone. I can’t even.

My husband left without me on a weekend trip. A trip which was an option. With my husband, who loves and values me, who elevates me, who treasures me as an equal partner, who was more disappointed than I when I couldn’t go. 

I got a speeding ticket. For which I could pay. And not for a second did I fear being jailed or kidnapped or assaulted when being pulled over.

I cannot reconcile the juxtaposition. My stress is real. But every ounce of it is First World. But it is still real, and I have no tidy answer to make sense of the polarity.

I guess all I can do is strive for what Glennon Melton calls perspectacles. Operating from a place of gratitude seems like a good place to start. Continuing to read and learn about global justice issues—when it would be so much easier to squeeze my eyes shut and plug my ears like a toddler—and then playing whatever small role I can to eradicate those issues. Breathing deeply, practicing awareness, praying, being still.

Realizing the sky covers the entire globe, and holding up half of it is a big job, no matter which piece of the sky you touch.

Grace guarding my rear

I have reached the season of life when I anxiously count the days until the beginning of school—not (only) because of the bickering and boredom and crap all over the house, plus the “there’s nothing to eat,” and “stop looking at me!” and “Mom? Mom? Mom? Mom? Mom? Mom? Mom? Mom? Mom? Mom? Mom? Mom? Mom? Mom? Mom?”—I hit that point years ago. This year, I craved the ending of the summer and the beginning of school so I could SLOW DOWN.

Here’s how summer goes with teens/preteens/pre-preteens: you set the alarm for 7:00 am. You drive one to Ballet Intensive. You drive another to Sports Practice. You drive another to Camp Interesting and Educational. Then you pick up #1 from dance, grab a quick lunch before you pick up #2 from practice, take him home and pick up #3 from camp. Then #1 wants to meet a friend at the movie theater and #3 wants to play with a friend, while #2 glares at you and declares there is nothing to do and his life is meaningless. At 5:59 you realize you’ve been in the car ALL DAY LONG and have nothing prepared for dinner, and since they insist upon eating EVERY NIGHT, sweetbabyMosesinabasket, you throw in a frozen pizza…or better yet, instruct your Privileged And Well-Rounded Brood to help themselves to a bowl of cereal.

At least when school starts, they go away for seven hours and you don’t have to see them, drive them, or entertain them ALL DAY LONG.

Then of course, school starts, and all is right and well with your quiet, peaceful little world…and by Day Three you are pulling out your gray hair and waking up in the middle of the night wondering how you are going to get everyone where they are supposed to be when they are supposed to be there.

I miss sleeping.

I’m kidding—sort of. (Not about the sleeping part.) Not every week of our summer was so jam-packed, and we did enjoy some pretty sweet travel time.

This one worked with Vietnamese orphans in Hanoi:

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These two worked with an orphanage in Mexico:

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And we spent one weekend touring Washington, D.C. at a frenetic pace with our bestbestbest friends, then hung out together on an island for a week.

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Kinda makes up for all the driving. Almost.

Deep in my bones, deeper in my heart, I feel a new beginning, a fresh start, a sense of hope. I’m not sure why. But I think this year is going to be different.

My eldest struggled in so many ways last year, which is her story to tell. As her mom, I wished I could take away her hurt—but at the same time, I knew pain and doubt and loneliness are some of our greatest teachers, and her story is being exquisitely written. God’s favorite job is taking the broken and making it beautiful—but the “broken” stage truly sucks.

Before her Vietnam trip, I found this passage in Isaiah 58, and I began praying these words on her behalf.

This is the kind of fasting I want:
Free those who are wrongly imprisoned;
lighten the burden of those who work for you.
Let the oppressed go free,
and remove the chains that bind people.

Share your food with the hungry,
and give shelter to the homeless.
Give clothes to those who need them,
and do not hide from relatives who need your help.

Then your salvation will come like the dawn,
and your wounds will quickly heal.
Your godliness will lead you forward,
and the glory of the Lord will protect you from behind.

Then when you call, the Lord will answer.
‘Yes, I am here,’ he will quickly reply.

Remove the heavy yoke of oppression.
Stop pointing your finger and spreading vicious rumors!

Feed the hungry,
and help those in trouble.
Then your light will shine out from the darkness,
and the darkness around you will be as bright as noon.

The Lord will guide you continually,
giving you water when you are dry
and restoring your strength.
You will be like a well-watered garden,
like an ever-flowing spring. (vs. 6-11, emphasis mine)

Generosity has the power to heal us. To summarize Jen Hatmaker’s interpretation: when Jesus broke the bread and poured the wine, then told the disciples to do this “in remembrance of Me,” He was saying, continually make this real. Continually allow yourselves to be broken and poured out for others because in the breaking, we find wholeness. In the pouring out, we are filled. In the dying, we find healing.

In serving, we find God—for God dwells among the least, the weak, the poor, the marginalized, the outcast, the forgotten. That’s his ZIP code.

Your salvation will come like the dawn. Dawn is a pretty cool time of day. (Or so I’ve heard.) Dawn is a new beginning, filled with hope and promise. New things are budding up, waiting to burst open and surprise us. Our wounds are less wounded.

Your godliness will lead you forward, and the glory of the Lord will protect you from behind. This slightly confused me until I imagined walking on a path (my path has lots of trees and sun-speckled dirt)—I’m walking toward something good, accompanied by my companions: Mercy, Grace, Justice, and Peace. When I turn around and remember the pain and hurt behind me, I see the love of God. My past is filtered through God’s love for me, how He was always with me, even when I didn’t believe He was. His glory protects me from behind.

I moved a couple of times as a child, and I transferred from one college to another during my junior year. The latter was the most painful, and I went kicking and screaming. For most of my adult life, I’ve felt bitter and cheated out of a complete college experience. Being uprooted left me flailing. Twenty years later, I still have dreams about returning and finishing my education where I began, as if my unconscious brain is somehow trying to achieve wholeness.

Only recently have I looked behind me and seen God’s love guarding my rear. (Interpret that as you will.) Those were some tough years—emotionally, spiritually, medically, mentally—but they undoubtedly shaped me and prepared me for the even tougher years that followed. I can finally rest in gratitude for all I experienced. And, funny thing, when I see that season through the lens of grace, all my other painful seasons are washed and colored and guarded, too.

Did this change of heart result from the mere passage of time and acquisition of wrinkles and chin hair? Perhaps. But I’m pretty sure getting out of my own head and stepping into the brokenness of God’s beloved has something to do with it, too. Feeling sorry for myself, wallowing in my bitterness, stuck in my grief—that’s near impossible when I choose to love, when I serve, when I listen.

To bungle paraphrase Solomon, the summer is past, and the rains are over and gone. It’s a new day, a new year, a new beginning. May we love deeply from our own sacred brokenness, and may our wounds heal quickly. May our darkness be flooded with light, may our gardens be well-watered, may our strength be restored.

(Also: may dinner magically appear on the table every night, and may we not run out of gas while driving to Kingdom Come and back every afternoon, forever and ever, amen.)

On making decisions

In 1995, I was a starry-eyed college senior, ridiculously in love with this cute boy and his big brown eyes. He wanted to be a doctor. He gave me a ring. And together, we planned our future. We had no (insert multiple swear words) idea what we were getting ourselves into. Which is definitely a good thing.

Deciding where he would go to medical school was our first major joint decision. He applied and interviewed at multiple schools, then narrowed the list to two: UT-Southwestern in Dallas, and Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.

Have English degree, will travel—I had zero career opportunities lined up. We figured I would find something in either city. I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I grew up, only that I loved words.

(Not much has changed in nineteen years.)

So we talked about it. And talked. And talked. And talked. For weeks, I think. And we prayed and prayed and prayed, then talked some more. We weighed all the pros and cons. We begged God for a lightning bolt to set a bush on fire and unleash an audible voice, telling us what to do. Obviously, that didn’t happen.

It came down to this:

1. Dallas

  • all our friends were moving there
  • our families were close to the area
  • comfortable and familiar

2. Houston

  • the armpit of the entire country
  • don’t know anyone
  • unfamiliar

No brainer, right?

I spent part of my childhood in Houston, and I was well into adulthood before I forgave my parents for moving us to Dallas. I stewed in fury for the latter part of my adolescence because we were no longer living in Houston. I was an angry, angry teenager. The irony of not wanting to return to Houston as an adult does not escape me. Life is weird like that.

But BCM had a great school, and at the time, it was structured a little differently, which Michael liked. We continued to talk and pray.

I remember tears. Lots of tears.

As we prayed together, we always said the same thing. God, show us where you want us to be. We only want what you want. We only want to be where you want us to be.

And also, pleasepleasepleaseplease tell us.

We kept waiting for the lighting, the burning bush, the audible voice. We’d even settle for a whisper. We just wanted to know.

After weeks of this, and a looming deadline, and silence, we sat on the couch in my apartment and looked at each other. We knew.

We were moving to Houston.

And I cried. Again.

As much as we prayed and begged God for a clear answer, we never got it. But what he gave us was a gift far better, and one we have carried with us and returned to throughout our marriage.

It doesn’t matter where you go. I will bless either decision. What matters is the process. What matters is how you snuggle up close to me and ask for my wisdom. That’s what I want for you. And because of that, I am giving you the freedom to choose. Go ahead. I am with you. I am for you. You are mine.

In hindsight, Houston was absolutely the best place for us to be. Yes, sometimes we couldn’t see the skyline because of the smog. Yes, the traffic was horrendous. Yes, walking from the front door to the car in July left us drenched in sweat and stink.

But.

We formed priceless friendships with people who challenged us and walked with us and shaped us, many of whom are still precious friends. We would not be the same people today without them.

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All of these babies are now in high school. Seriously.

We loved our church—not only the community, but also the blend of liturgy and art, the embracing of silence, the learning of meditative Taize prayer and worship.

We loved the city. Houston’s food and culture and diversity rivals New York City. (Almost. Even though we were too broke to experience most of it.)

We needed to be away from our parents and our friends. We did. We needed to be in a place where we only had each other, where we were forced to depend on each other and begin our marriage without a safety net.

Sitting on the couch in my college apartment, we couldn’t have known any of this.

But it was absolutely the best choice.

Could we have spent the first four to five years of marriage in Dallas and still have been blessed? Undoubtedly. But we didn’t, and neither of us would want to go back in time and change a single thing.

(Except perhaps the eyewear. And the clothing choices.)

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Nineteen years and countless decisions later, we still return to that experience, and now we are teaching our children. Who you are is more important than what you do. When we have reached other proverbial forks in the road, sometimes our next steps are clearly lit. Most times they are not. Regardless, we know that our hearts and our love for God are the priority.

In the seeking, we find wisdom.

In the trusting, we find peace.

In the silence, we find him.

 

The two roads diverge in a yellow wood, and God will go with us down either.

And that makes all the difference.

Aliens & Sacrificial Love – My Messy Beautiful

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I am thrilled to join one of my favorite writers, Glennon Melton, in her Messy, Beautiful Warriors Project. Glennon is quite literally changing the world, one mama at a time. In her words, “I learned fast that when you take a leap of faith and introduce your REALEST self—the REAL everybody else’s step forward. Heart to heart—soul to soul—people allow themselves to really be seen.”  So much freedom is found when we stop pretending we have it all together, when we agree to share a safe and sacred space of authenticity. This is my brutiful offering…

 

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Many, many times during our fifteen years of parenthood, my husband and I have looked at each other, exhausted and frustrated and panicked, thinking This is not what we signed up for. This is not what we imagined when we said, “Let’s have a baby!” Somewhere along the way, our precious bundle of joy struck a deal with an alien life form and switched places.

This whole parenting thing?  Not for wimps. It is hard. It is messy. And it is beautiful.

The first week of school is One Of Those Times. Disruption, exhaustion, new routine, new teacher, new friends—throw in moving to a new house and a new school, and you end up with a perfect storm that will inevitably explode into some serious ugly. Especially when you are a nine year old middle child.

He was tired. (Who wouldn’t be after a full summer of sleeping and playing, then having to wake up at 6:20 every morning and go to school all day? Gah!) He was lonely and confused. And because of alien behavior over the summer, the rug was still being pulled out from under him at home in the form of some tough-love discipline.

Put it together and what do you get? Ugly.

Him: Screaming, yelling, name-calling, hitting, pushing, blatant defiance and disobedience. Me: crying, yelling, ignoring, more crying, more yelling. By Wednesday night, I was an exhausted, frazzled mess, curled in a fetal position, wondering where exactly we went wrong. This is not my child. This is not who I have raised. But he’s in there somewhere. I know he is.

Not surprisingly, I had a hard time sleeping. As I lay awake, an idea started to form in my mushy, fatigued little brain. A conversation. A plan.

The next morning was off to a (sadly expected) rough start. He gave us an ultimatum. “Give me what I want, or I’m not going to school.”

“That’s fine,” we said. “But you still have to get up and get dressed, because you will need to explain to your principal and your teacher why you’re not going to class today.”

He decided to go to school.

That afternoon, I picked up all the kids, brought them home, gave them a snack, then called him into my bedroom.  I closed the door and sat on my bed, inviting him to join me.

“I want to tell you the story of you,” I began. Then—lovingly, tenderly, respectfully—I recounted my tale. I told him how overjoyed we were when the stick turned blue, how we planned and prayed, how we counted the days until we met him. And then, in specific but discreet detail, I described all that I experienced and endured because I love him so much.

Morning sickness. “You know how yucky you feel when you throw up? I barfed every day for a month.”

Discomfort. “For four months, I had to sleep sitting up, otherwise you would get up under my ribs, and I’d wake up feeling like my ribs were broken.”

Labor. “Can you remember the worst tummy ache you’ve ever had? I had that every three to five minutes for about nine hours…”

Exhaustion. “I had only slept for about two hours, then we had to go to the hospital in the middle of the night, and you weren’t born until the next afternoon…” and “Staying in the hospital isn’t restful. Someone came in every few hours to check on me, and when they weren’t checking on me, I had to feed you…”

Nursing. “You know how it feels when you fall on your bike and hit your No-Man’s-Land? Imagine someone squeeeeeezing you there reeeeally hard for twenty minutes straight, then puking sour milk all over you, and then coming back to do it again every two hours, around the clock, every day.”

Exhaustion Part II. “You’ve seen your two year old cousins this year. That’s how old your sister was when you were born. I had to take care of you and her, and Daddy was working a lot. None of our family lived near enough to help me. I didn’t have many close friends. Sometimes I couldn’t even take a shower for days.”

Soccer. “We know God has gifted you to play soccer, and we love to watch you play. This is exactly how much money we spend every year for you to play soccer. We could take a really nice vacation with that money, but we don’t. This is exactly how much time we spend in the car every single week, just taking you to practices and games.”

At the end of this extended, very detailed speech, I said, “Look at my eyes. I want you to remember this. All of these things I told you about? This is why I deserve your respect, and why it makes me so sad and angry when you treat me badly and call me names and say that I don’t love you. I have endured so much for you, and I have sacrificed everything for you. I love you.

He gazed at me with his huge, liquid brown eyes—the same eyes that captured me nine years ago when I held him as a wrinkled, bald, beautiful newborn—snuggled up next to me, wrapped his arms around my neck, and said, “I’m sorry, Mom.”

With that, The Alien returned to his home planet, and my sweet, tenderhearted, obedient son returned.

I knew our little chat would stir his heart and rock his world because he can’t stand to see anyone hurting or sad or sick. He’s the kid who will empty his piggy bank for the American Heart Association fundraiser or the special offering at church for the Vietnamese orphans. He’s the kid who won’t let me drive past a homeless person without rolling down the window and offering my spare change. He’s that kind of kid.

(Despite the wild Norwegian-Spanish flare he comes by oh-so-honestly.)

I knew that illustrating the proof of my love and how much it cost would reach the part of his heart he had closed off to us, and I hoped he would respond with tender humility and gratitude. I knew how much happier he would be when he returned to who he really is.

How much like our children we are.

Lonely, terrified, insecure.

Disobedient, defiant, unkind, disrespectful.

And does not God similarly speak to the prodigal? Look at my eyes…I love you so much. Here’s what I did for you. This is how much I gave. I gave my life for you. I sacrificed everything because I love you so much. Please let me love you. Please act in love and gentleness so you can experience the life I have planned for you.

My Monkee sisters, rest. Breathe deeply. Know the limitless love of your Father/Mother God. How much more peacefully and joyfully we live—with ourselves and with each other—when we simply receive His love for us, when we know who we are, when we believe we are worth it. How much happier we are when we simply obey and live loved.

How abundantly we experience life when our own little aliens return to their home planet.

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This essay and I are part of the Messy, Beautiful Warrior Project — To learn more and join us, CLICK HERE! And to learn about the New York Times Bestselling Memoir Carry On Warrior: The Power of Embracing Your Messy, Beautiful Life, just released in paperback, CLICK HERE!

The Ins, the Outs, and losing control

I recently deleted the Facebook app on my phone in an attempt to get a life.

Seriously. When I am bored/unmotivated/uninspired/procrastinating, I could easily allow myself to be sucked into the vortex of wasted time, only to be spit out a hour and a half later, having accomplished nothing but a worn-out fingertip from all the scrolling. Plus my brain started to spin from All The Words. Oh my. So many words.

Last year, I laid down Facebook as my Lenten sacrifice—except when I sat in one particular space. That worked well, and it opened my eyes to the gross amount of wasted time and energy. (Plus, I made sure I stayed well-hydrated for those six weeks.)

But this year, even before Lent, I deleted my app. I’ll still use my Safari app to take a quick peek, but it’s not nearly as user-friendly, so I don’t stay on for very long. Which is good. Because really. Ninety-eight-point-two percent of FB content is just dumb. (Your posts, of course, fall into the 1.8%  that is clever and inspiring and thoroughly enjoyable.)

So you would think with all this freed-up mental energy, I would be racking up my lost IQ points and expending some serious creative energy. Instead, I download Monopoly. Which is equally as dumb and time-wasting.

Except when I’m kicking some serious Monopoly tail. It’s quite a rush when the computer player lands on Boardwalk with a hotel and pays me $2000, forcing him to mortgage all his properties in order to stay alive. Boo to the Yah.

But when I’m on the other end, it kinda sucks. I was making my way around the board yesterday, $22 in my account, all my properties mortgaged, while the other three computer players had 4- and 5-digit accounts and hotels coming out their ears. Or race car wheels. Whatever. Not fair! screamed my inner eight-year old. I felt like I was back in middle school…or high school…or college…or playgroup…or PTA: left behind, out of the loop, excluded from the cool kids, not able to keep up, not able to stay in the game, always on the outside. A loser in a game I didn’t want to play. Not fair.

A few weeks ago, I chaperoned a trip to the bowling alley with a group of middle and high school students from our church. I sat back and stealthily observed the fascinating dynamics of the In Crowds and the Out Crowds. Here’s what I noticed:

The In Crowd = long, straight, frizzless hair; loud, enthusiastic. Running shorts. Flawless skin and makeup. Always, always chewing gum (with their mouths open, looking like cows. One of my pet peeves.)

The Out Crowd = quiet. Slightly awkward. Less than perfect skin, hair, makeup. Occasionally glaring at the In Crowd, but also afraid to look at them. Definitely more fearful, less outgoing, more insecure. They almost cower in the shadow of the In Crowd.

I could slap a nametag on each girl with the name of someone I used to know.

As a mom, such dynamics break my heart. I know the lines dividing Cool from Not Cool are false and unnecessary, that all teenage girls have pain and insecurity, that they all feel like outsiders. At least I think they do. My friend D insists that she (a perky blonde California cheerleader) knew everyone liked her and she had no insecurity. Which means, of course, that all the non-blonde, non-cheerleader types like me hated her.

(Sorry, D.)

But today she is one of my dearest friends. For the bowling crowd, someday the lines will move and sometimes disappear altogether, someday the Ins and the Outs will belong to each other. Someday they will share coffee and projects and secrets, they will speak kindly to each other and laugh together and enjoy each other. Someday the shared adult experiences will evaporate the false divisions of adolescence.

But for now, they will just ignore each other, resent each other, glare at each other.

And, fellow heartbroken moms, there is nothing we can do about it. Lately this truth has flattened me. Even if I did everything right (I didn’t), even if I were a perfect mother (I’m not)—even then, my kids would still be jacked up, insecure, and afraid. Even then, they would be broken and hurt. Even then, they would doubt their value, their purpose, their significance. Even then.

Even the most loved kids from the most loving families can feel unlovable. Even the best kids from the best families can make very bad decisions. I’ll let you in on a little secret: we have zero control, and there are zero guarantees. That verse we quote and claim and hang on walls and embroider on pillows?

Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it (Proverbs 22:6). 

In the immortal words of Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride,

 “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

So let’s agree to shelve it, please. (What?! Incontheevable.)

When you look at the original language, this verse translates as a proverb, not a promise. There’s a huge difference. Train up a child according to his palate [in keeping with his individual gift or bent], and when he is old, he will not turn from it. In other words, if your kid likes music, encourage him to develop that gift, enroll him in piano lessons, and when he is old, he will still like music. Your kid is an athlete? A dancer? An artist? Embrace that gift and teach her to love it…and when she’s an adult, she will still love it. The unspoken implication is you shouldn’t force your kid to be something he’s not. If he doesn’t like sports, don’t insist upon Little League. When he’s old, he still won’t like it, no matter how many pitches you make him hit.

That’s all. Nothing here about how teaching enough right things will guarantee your kid will grow up to be a good person.

Sorry to burst that little bubble.

Like I said, zero control and zero guarantees.

I’m realizing lately that my kids could very easily walk away from the faith in which we have so intentionally raised them. Of course, I hope they don’t. I pray they will embrace the truth and joy and hope and peace we have tried to teach them. I hope they figure out for themselves that what we have taught them is true and good and worth it.

But they might not.

And there’s nothing I can do about that. Just like there’s nothing I can do to make my child feel included and loved at the bowling alley. Or at school, or on the playground, or at a friend’s house, or at church.

That doesn’t mean I’m without hope or purpose in my parenting, and that doesn’t exempt me from teaching them and loving them and pouring into them. Not at all. It only means that I have to release control—no, my illusion of control—because there is so little I can actually control. And my kids’ choices and feelings are not one of those things.

(How’s that for uplifting?)

So I pray. I pray that God will bless them with faith to believe he is who he says he is, and that they are who God says they are. I pray he will protect them, hold them, speak to them…and that they will listen. And if when they don’t? I will continue to pray, knowing that he is a master of divine redemption, of taking the broken and making it beautiful. Some of my favorite people have long, long stories of brokenness and beauty.

My friend Erika survived leukemia. We’re attempting to write a book about it. She has shared many profound truths with me (that we can’t wait to share with you), and one of the greatest is this: she realizes the same Jesus who held her hand and healed her during her horrific leukemia treatment is the same Jesus who holds her teenagers. He took care of her; he will take care of them.

And mine. And yours.