Fear to Freedom: In the beginning…

<Previous: Introduction

Our eldest birdie is about to fly the nest. I have a lot of feelings about this, but I discovered a most excellent coping mechanism: projects. Lots and lots of projects requiring lots and lots of lists. When I have projects, I don’t have time to stop and think about what is about to happen.

As she neared graduation, I threw myself into planning a graduation party she didn’t really want, although she graciously acknowledged my love for planning and hosting and celebrating, so she went along with it. I was swimming in craft paper and glitter and ribbon, and I could dedicate an entire post to my new Cricut cutting machine. I loved every second. (And, for the record, it was a GREAT party and she had a lot of fun.)

At the top of my Party Planning To-Do List was a digital slideshow of pictures from her birth to graduation, set to music. Important note: I documented the first six years of her life with cropped photos and clever layouts in all manner of acid-free scrapbooking glory without the use of a digital camera. For six years, I turned in rolls of 35 mm film to Walgreens, and I’m pretty sure I forgot to order duplicate prints. Which translates to this: to create a digital slideshow, I had to peruse six years’ worth of scrapbooks and scan the best pictures with an iPhone that did not even exist when those pictures were taken. And if you remember the scrapbooking craze of the early 2000s, we cut every picture into circles and ovals and stars and hearts and then matted them on adorably patterned acid-free paper—which makes for a darling layout, but does not lend itself well to scanning.

Thankfully, we bought a digital camera in 2005, so the remaining twelve years are responsibly archived on a portable hard drive and painlessly transferred into PowerPoint. Hallelujah, technology.

As I scanned and uploaded eighteen years of pictures, I realized that I am not mourning the loss of her childhood because she has not been a little girl for a very long time. Her baby pictures, her toddler pictures, her early school years—I saw innocence and joy, delight and security. That little girl had no doubt she was fully and completely loved. She was free and confident and fearless.

Until she wasn’t. Perhaps only her momma would notice, but I can easily pinpoint the pictures where her smiled changed and the light left her eyes. Those were really hard years.

Untitled-7-p1I think this happens to all of us at some point. Most of us are born into families where we are adored and celebrated and cared for. As babies, we are fed and held, and that alone assures us we are loved. We grow into childhood hearing we are special, limitless, treasured. That kind of affection explains the fearlessness of children: the mismatched clothes and crazy hair, the princess tea parties and pirate adventures, the “look at me, Momma, look! Watch me! WHEEEEEE!” That security is rooted in the belief we are wholly and unconditionally loved. When we know we are loved, we have the confidence to live into ourselves, to fully express our deepest joys. When we know we are loved, we don’t fear punishment or scorn or judgement. We live with abandon and delight because we believe we are endlessly loved.

And somewhere along the way, we stop believing it.

Our disbelief could happen slowly, like trickling creek erodes the rock—incremental careless words, rejection, failure. Or it could happen with a single traumatic event, like a divorce or a death. However it happens, we turn our ears to the lying voices that tell us we are not worthy of love. Our tender hearts become stained and poisoned with fear, and we begin thinking and responding from a place of fear instead of a place of Love. We exit the realm of confidence and security, and we walk into a prison of doubt and insecurity.

Consider the Genesis narrative of creation: God created man and woman and blessed them. They “felt no shame” (2:25); they lived in wholeness and with peace. Then the serpent caused Eve question God’s goodness—essentially, “if he really loves you, why would he lie to you?” And it goes downhill from there.

I have come to believe that at its most basic, stripped-down root, most anger, selfishness, jealousy, bad behavior and poor choices come from this fear of being unloved. We’ll explore this idea in the next post. For now, reflect on this:

Do you remember a time or circumstance of knowing you were completely loved? How did that affect your thoughts and actions?

Do you remember a time or circumstance of doubting that you were loved? What was the result?

How do you think fear leads to anger, selfishness, and bad behavior?

I’d love to hear your thoughts – comment below!

Next: The prison of fear>

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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.

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…

 

Alien

 

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!

Bite the banana, the teenage edition

Her toddler brow furrowed; her lips pursed. If this were an animated Disney film, the blonde Shirley Temple curls framing her face would have straightened into lethal electrified spikes as she opened her mouth.

“I WANT TO BITE THE BANANA!!!”

I don’t know if I counted to ten (doubtful) or clenched my teeth (more likely) or turned red with rage (probable), but I’m certain I remained determined to win the Battle of Wills with this three year old alien-possessed angel child. Because “do you want me to cut the banana or leave it whole so you can bite it?” seems like a rational question, does it not? And when said alien asks for her banana to be cut, that sounds like a reasonable request, right? But when a three year old changes her mind, after the fact? Well. Batten down the hatches and secure yourself under the nearest doorframe, my friends, because Tornado Toddler is about to unfurl her wrath.

I remember thinking, “Oh, dear Lord. This child is possessed!” My sweet-faced, affectionate, kind-hearted baby girl had entered The Age of Threes, and ushering me to the pearly gates of STYWOM.

Yet somehow, we both survived, and when her two younger brothers followed her footsteps through All Manner of Alienness, I was somewhat prepared. Somewhat, not completely. It was not fun.

(Clearly, whoever coined the term “terrible twos” did not yet have a three year old.)

So here I stand, a survivor, tentatively stepping into the next realm of parenthood: teenagers.

Have mercy.

I wish I could tell you that I’m confident, that having survived toddlerhood prepared me for anything, for the worst. I wish I could tell you that it gets better. It does, for a while. Then you do it all over again, only this time on a more intense, emotional level, with higher stakes. Wash, rinse, repeat.

Parenting a toddler means physical exhaustion. You are constantly doing something for somebody because they need you and can’t do a rippin’ thing for themselves…or if they can, it takes twenty-seven times as long as it would if you did it for them. You’re so exhausted from ALL THE WORDS and All The Things that it’s just easier to put her jacket on her yourself instead of waiting for her to take the sleeve off her foot and MY do it! 

Parenting a teenager means a constant stream of push and pull, give and take, enforcing boundaries and letting her go. And convincing her to use descriptive words that don’t involve grunting, that you aren’t a complete idiot and actually know a few things about making good decisions and acting appropriately.

Parenting a teenager means helplessly standing nearby as insecurity attacks her heart like a cancer, destroying her joy, stealing her smile. You can cautiously, gently offer encouragement, occasionally advice. You can tell her it won’t always be this hard, that she’s not the only one who has these feelings. But mostly, you simply listen.

Parenting a teenager means realizing she will leave home very, very soon—and hoping you’ve done enough good things to outweigh all the moments she will have to sort out with a therapist.

Parenting a teenager will suck the very life from your soul.

As with toddlerhood, though, there are times when I thoroughly enjoy my teenager. I’d venture to say even most of the time, she is a delight, a joy, a mature and responsible and talented young woman with a killer sense of humor. She is kind and generous and compassionate, poised to serve and change the world. Most of the time, most days, I feel relief in having raised such an incredible girl.

Other days, I want to pop open a bottle of wine and drive the corkscrew through my eyeball…after finishing the bottle of wine, of course.

Once again, I’m convinced my child is possessed. This is not who I raised you to be! Knock it off! And for the love of all that is worthy of your attention, put down your friggin’ phone and ENGAGE!

Sigh.

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There is nothing new under the sun.

“Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly”…the woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said. (Matthew 15:22,25)

She chased him down. She begged. Unrelenting, unwavering, desperate cries for mercy. Help me!

The disciples rolled their eyes. “Tell her to go away,” they said, “she’s bothering us.”

He ignored her. (What?!) Maybe because he wanted her to ask again, maybe because he wanted her faith and determination to increase. I don’t know. This passage makes me squirm. I don’t like it. I don’t understand it. Jesus’ response does not line up with my neat-and-tidy, black-and-white, Sunday school felt board picture. If I were in charge, this story would take a different angle.

And, for the record, he ignored the disciples, too. Maybe he just needed a break from All The Words and All The Whining. I so get that.

She kept asking. She begged for his help. She begged for the crumbs of a miracle that would be swept off the table. That would be enough to restore her daughter.

///

Meghan spent her entire winter break in the downstairs guest bedroom or in a borrowed wheelchair. Eleven years of ballet turned both her knees into big nasty balls of inflamed mess, so she had surgery to clean them up. Not a huge deal, but once her orthopedist got inside her knees with his little scopey thingy, he found they were much worse than he originally thought. We had hoped she would be bouncing around again after two or three weeks, but no. Recovery is taking its sweet time.

I have to confess something here: as much as I love having a brave, strong, independent daughter, I kinda love her still needing me. I kinda love taking care of her: getting toast and hot tea, bags of ice, bowls of fruit, and drugs. (Lord, yes, the drugs!) I love when she smiles and mumbles in a codeine-induced stupor, “thanks, Mommy” and closes her eyes. I love that she finally realizes she still needs me—at least until she can walk.

We’ve intentionally raised our kids not to need us, which is definitely a good thing, except when it bites us in the butt. If I hear I got this, Mom one more time, I might engage the aforementioned corkscrew. Seriously. It’s a three year old, masquerading as a fourteen year old, pretending to be a twenty year old…without a driver’s license and ability to be legally employed. Do you really “got this”?

Please. Also: eye rolling, long sighs, attempted domination of accuracy and correctness, fine, whatever, stop it, I hate family time.

I much prefer “thanks, Mommy”—so I’m soaking it in while it lasts.

Still, it’s hard to see your baby in pain. Stupid knees. Ice helps, ibuprofen helps, physical therapy helps, but complete healing has not yet come. It will. But it hasn’t yet.

So we pray. Earnestly, expectantly, hope-fully. We pray for her knees to be strong, for the pain to subside.

We pray for healing for her knees, but more importantly, healing for her heart.

I pray that in between Netflix and YouTube and the ginormous stack of YA novels, she will hear God’s voice disproving the lies she has come to believe: that she is not enough, that she is too much, that she doesn’t matter. I pray that God will give her the faith to know and believe she is who he says she is. I pray he will give her vision for all he wants to do in her and through her. I pray she will regain her confidence, her self-worth, her joy. Because really, so much of the push-back and misery and incredulity she dishes out stems from a fearful heart trying to navigate a scary world.

I pray her heart will heal.

My daughter is suffering terribly…help me!

It’s the desperate plea of a desperate mother. Because the piece of her heart living outside her body is broken, hurting, wilted, bruised. And only he can help.

“Dear woman,” Jesus said to her, “your faith is great. Your request is granted.” And her daughter was instantly healed.

///

It almost sounds like this is the worst season of life ever. No, not at all, really. It’s challenging, it’s tiring, it’s frustrating. But it is also tremendously rewarding and fun and exciting. During the past three weeks—while Meghan has been stuck inside, hobbling around, wincing with each step, each movement—we have had time to sit and talk, sharing secrets and many tightly gripped hugs where I won’t let go first, lots of giggles and guffaws and squishy kisses on the cheek. In her forced break from the world, she has relaxed into the safe space that we share together. I’m not so bad after all. I’m actually pretty handy to have around. Her laugh is sweeter than honey, and I’m storing these days in my heart like Mary, tiny snapshots of moments to remember.

///

There’s a house down the street that lost its second story last fall to a horrendous fire. Slowly, they’re rebuilding. We now see beams of wood, a frame, and the skeleton of a roof. Also, a big ugly dumpster in the yard, lots of scraps, lots of chaos. It’s the picture of redemption: God taking something burned up, burned out, unlivable, and making it into something beautiful. It’s a messy process, and it’s his favorite job. Darkness into light, ashes into beauty, water into wine. I smile every time I drive past this house. I kinda love that.

It’s my daughter’s story, rough draft, on the editor’s desk, continually being written and rewritten, torn down and rebuilt, created and recreated.

So with each moment, each day, I pray. Help me and heal her, knowing he will, knowing she will eventually walk with confidence and without pain.

And knowing that someday, blessed someday, her daughter will request her own friggin’ sliced banana…

Christmas is stupid…except when it’s not

Merry flippin’ Christmas, y’all.

We’ve crammed as much holiday cheer as we possibly could into the three measly weeks between Thanksgiving and That Other Day that never fails to make me crazy. I’ve decided something. I have an opinion. Wanna hear it?

Ready?

Christmas is stupid.

I’ve been here before, and I know it’s just a phase. This happens to me every few years—though I think it’s getting worse and more common as my kids get older…and busier.

Holiday concerts, recitals, performances, parties, “please send 24 juice boxes on Thursday,” “please send a wrapped 100-piece puzzle,” “please send 5 bottles of sprinkles,” “please note the 57 afterschool rehearsals,” driving, driving, driving, buying, wrapping, decorating, addressing, stamping, mailing, driving, driving, “please donate,” “please support,” “please attend.”

Stupid.

So, once again, apathy saves me. I simply don’t care. I’m in automaton mode, and I don’t give a rip. We pulled out the Christmas decorations after Thanksgiving, and I’m all meh—so we put up our tree, threw a couple of things around the family room, hung a wreath on the front door, and called it a day. 

I’m not sending Christmas cards this year. I’ve done most all my shopping online. I didn’t bake a single holiday morsel. Not even the crack balls. I’m coasting towards Christmas Eve.

Not the jolliest of advent attitudes, to be sure. Whatevs, man. I’m pretty sure baby Jesus didn’t celebrate his birthday with 5 bottles of sprinkles and a 100 piece puzzle.

And you know what? I like it. I’m totally digging this. I think I might be on to something.

The week after Thanksgiving, you might have heard, we suffered through Icemageddon 2013. Dude. We were stuck inside for five stupid days because the roads were covered with inches of ice and Texas cannot deal. You would think having five days of isolation three weeks before Christmas would yield all kinds of productivity. You would think I would get all kinds of baking and decorating and merriment completed. You would think I would use this empty block of time writing, creating, crossing off items on my holiday to-do list.

Wrong. Five days of isolation equals me, on the couch, in my pajamas, like a big gooey blob of Oo-Bleck.

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Blaaaaaaaahhhhhhh.

It was quite pathetic.

In the midst of so much holiday stupidity, this year is slightly different. I can do without all the pointless craziness, but I am truly looking forward to Christmas Eve with my family—my parents, brother, sis-in-law (who is everybody’s favorite), and my so-adorable-I-want-to-die niece and nephew—plus Michael and our kids.

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We eat. We play Christmas charades. We eat some more. We laugh—a lot. We leisurely drink our post-dinner coffee for as long as possible while the kids squirm and whine and beg to open presents…just like my brother and I did celebrating Christmas Eve with our grandparents. My kids look forward to this night all year long.IMG_2097

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I can’t wait.

And Christmas morning at our house: our kids in their new pajamas, giving and receiving gifts, watching them come out of their skin waiting for each of us to open what they purchased at the dollar store. Eating raspberry french toast, listening to Christmas music, laughing, cheering. Being together.

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I love that.

And—true confession time—a few paragraphs up, I kinda lied. Or, as my eight year old calls it, stretched the truth. Which, according to an eight year old, is not technically a lie. Even though it is. Whatever it is, I have to confess that I did bake Christmas cookies. Actually, my kids and I did it together. And the next night, all five of us, as a family, sat around the kitchen table and slathered all manner of sugary goodness on top of these little bits of delightfulness.

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I’m hoping sitting around the table decorating cookies counts as “family meal time” and puts us back in the black on that spreadsheet. I know All The Books recommend sitting together and eating dinner every night of the week, but most nights, we’re lucky to have three or four of us planted at the table for most of the meal before someone needs to be picked up or taken somewhere. And if nobody gets mad? THAT is a true Christmas miracle, my friends. 

So sitting together decorating cookies made for some really good family bonding and hilarity. Score one for the Momaroo.

That’s the kind of holiday madness I can totally get behind. Everything else drowns out the quiet, thankful reflection I believe God intends. He instructs us to celebrate festivals of remembrance to remember. Remember our blessings. Remember what He has done. Remember how far He has brought us. And celebrate.

Christmas is about remembering the light in the darkness, the hope and mercy given to us, the promise of Emmanuel, God with us.

This is not a new thought. You read articles and blog posts, listen to sermons and radio bits every year reminding you to slow down, reflect, enjoy. I’m not telling you anything you haven’t heard before. But I hope you’ll join me in closing your eyes, taking a big, deep, cleansing breath. Lower your shoulders from your ears. Roll your neck.

That’s it. Good job. Now look around. See the chaos? See the madness? Yep, it’s still there. That’s okay. There is light breaking through. It’s there. Squint your eyes if you need to. We have so much to remember, so much to be thankful for.

Rejoice.