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…

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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 served become the servants

Every Tuesday morning at 9:30 a.m., fifteen hands shoot into the air as I enter the room. Fifteen toothless smiles. Fifteen sets of bright, eager eyes.

“Ms. Johnson, can I read with Mrs. Hunt?”

I’ve been walking into this classroom for five years, and their greetings never get old.

Nor does their bravery, their perseverance, their determination. Many of these first graders at The Academy at West Birdville barely know their letter sounds when I first meet them in September.  “You can do hard things!” I tell them. Each Tuesday morning, I sit on a corner of the rug, and they come to me, one at a time. We sit together and they read to me, struggling over sounds and letters and blends. Sometimes –ow says OW, I tell them. But in this word, it says OH. It doesn’t make much sense, and it’s tricky. But you can do it, I tell them.

And they do. Over and over and over again, they figure it out. Tiny miracles happen in first grade every day. The child who barely recognizes the letters of the alphabet in September is reading sixty words per minute in May.

I play a small part in their story. It’s not a big role, and it’s mostly cheering them on and giving them a little extra help. Occasionally they share their secrets, sometimes with words, sometimes with silence: not enough food, fear of abuse, separation from their families. On Tuesday mornings, I briefly step into their world. I’m not the only one—every day, volunteers from NorthWood Church step into classrooms to remind these kids how amazing they are, and coach them with reading or math or vocabulary. It’s a small thing. But it’s something. It’s a small thing done with great love.

For the past five years, on my final Tuesday with the class, I bring a gift bag full of individually wrapped books to give them. Their pants have creeped up their shins, their toes rub against the tops of their shoes, their new teeth have filled in the gaps. They have grown—oh, how they’ve grown! Their smiles are brighter, their confidence soaring, their brains expanded. They know I have a special treat for them in my bag, so they sit criss-cross-applesauce, hands in their laps, bouncing on their backsides, waiting to receive.

But not this time. Today, before I can even announce the gifts, Ms. Johnson walks over to the bulletin board and pulls down a piece of blue construction paper, scrawled with first grade script and displaying two sandwich bags filled with coins.

“We have been learning about charities,” she tells me as the kids sit grinning. “And we decided to collect money to give back to NorthWood.” She reminds her students about the playground pavilion the church built, and the school supplies we provided, and the many volunteers who wrap their arms around this school.

This is where Jesus resides. This is his ZIP code. Among the smallest, the most vulnerable—raising their dimpled hands and declaring “Me too! I want to be a part of this kingdom!” Where the served become the servants. Where generosity begets generosity. Where small seeds of love are planted, grown, harvested, and replanted, awaiting the next season of growth and harvest and replanting.

One Tuesday morning at a time.

 

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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.)

Showing up

This is me, showing up.

Showing up the the second most difficult thing in life, especially for the creative. Showing up means saying, “Here I am! Let’s get to work!” —even when you have no idea where to start or where you’re going or what you’re doing. You show up. You sit down, and you begin.

And then, you create something out of nothing—which isn’t entirely true. The Nothing is actually a Something you didn’t know was there. The Nothing Something could be an image, a word, a phrase, an idea. It could be something you noticed while sitting in the car line or changing the eleventh load of laundry. It is usually a whisper that beckons you to follow it, though you know not where it will lead. Your job is to follow, to observe, to record.

So you do. And from that whisper that is Nothing Something emerges a Thing of Beauty that you cannot contain or harness or control—it acts and speaks in a voice heard differently by every soul it encounters. Some may hear majestic major chords, some may hear a laughing trill, some may hear a mournful minor key. But they all hear what they need to hear, what will soothe them, what will inspire them, what will sustain them—so you simply play the music. With trembling hands, you hold out your gift, waiting for it to be received.

Showing up is the second most difficult thing in life. Your Thing of Beauty being ignored—that’s the first. Unveiling your secrets, exposing your raw weaknesses, coloring your soul on a page—that is what frees you; the loud silence that follows shackles you to your insecurity. The silence screams you are not enough, you are not worthy, you are not important. The silence draws you back behind your carefully constructed fortress, the thick walls that protect you from feeling insignificant, but also keep out light and breath and warmth. They keep out the community.

So this is me, showing up. This is me, stepping out from behind the walls, fearing the silence, but refusing to cower. This is my healing, my oxygen, my bread and wine. This is my broken turned into beauty.

This is me, showing up.

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!

Entwined

He moves swiftly through the family room, carrying a basket of clean laundry, intent to deliver it to our bedroom before tackling the next item on his long to-do list. I reach out from where I’m sitting and brush his arm with my fingers as he passes me, and I smile. His steps slow for a nanosecond, and he looks at me, first quizzically, then he grins, the quick change in his expression noticeable only to one who has known him so intimately for twenty-one years.

///

Midnight premieres are not what they used to be. I’m not sure why this is, but I’m not complaining. When a studio schedules a weekend release of a blockbuster movie, theaters start playing the film at 8:00 on Thursday evening, not midnight. Which means you can cross off youthful adventure and still be in bed before the carriage turns back into a pumpkin and your RLS flairs up again.

Meghan wanted to go to the premiere of Divergent last week—she preferred the actual midnight showing, so I pulled the 40-Card out of my back pocket—we compromised and went at 10. When you’re fifteen and don’t have another ride, whaddya gonna do?

I had not read the books yet, and I really liked the movie, which is forcing me to reevaluate my read-the-book-before-you-see-the-movie rule. I’ve stuck to that rule hard and fast, but it always leaves me disappointed. The book is always better than the movie. I usually leave the movie wanting more of the book. But see the movie first, enjoy the movie, and still love the book? I’m rethinking this.

For the uninitiated, the Divergent series throws the reader into the middle of a dystopian post-apocalyptic society where the ruling authorities divide the population according to each person’s single defining characteristic: service, bravery, intellect, peacefulness, or honesty. There’s no overlap—unless you are “Divergent.” Which, of course, Tris (our sixteen year old heroine) is. And which, of course, she has to keep a secret or lose her life. She meets Four, one of her instructors in the Dauntless faction, who also happens to be Divergent. And, of course, they start to kinda like each other.

That’s really all you need to know. (That, plus government is power-hungry and bad and wants to kill people to maintain control.)

So there’s this scene where all of the non-Divergent Dauntless are in a train car, under the influence of this government-issued mind-control serum, on their way to wage war against another faction. (Hello, young adult dystopian science fiction.) Even though their Divergence makes them immune to the serum, Tris and Four pretend to be mind-controlled to prevent divulging their secret. But Tris doesn’t yet know that Four is a Divergent, though she suspects he is, and she doesn’t know for sure if he’s only pretending to be zombified. So she inches her way through all the zoned-out Dauntless and stands next to him. In a moment of enormous suspense and tension, he slowly, surreptitiously takes her hand and laces his fingers through hers.

He’s not a zombie. And they’re holding hands.

For an instant, my insides flutter and swim. I can hardly breathe.

Because he held her hand.

playinghandsies

///

“So, um, I had a really good time this weekend.” He twisted his watch around his wrist, fidgeting with the strap.

“Yeah, me too,” I smiled. I looked out across the river, the moon reflecting its light like an unfolding secret.

“So what does that mean?”

I blinked.

Two hours later, we stood up from that place—grinning, nervous, joyously exhilarated—and began to walk back to his car. He took off his coat and put it around my shoulders, then reached for my hand, our fingers entwining. My stomach leaped. We looked at each other and smiled, moving together along the sidewalk through puddles of light and shadow.

///

I vaguely remember dating. Before bills and obligations, before careers and babies, before diapers and potty training and tantrums, before soccer practices and ballet recitals and Cub Scout campouts, before sleepless nights wondering if our mistakes could be redeemed.

I remember dating. I remember how I could not suppress a smile when he looked at me, when I heard his voice on the phone, when he touched my arm or my face. I remember resting my head on his shoulder, and his hand touching my knee, and the thrill that lit up inside me, knowing he believed I was something special. I remember escaping to secret places together, making out for hours, the too much and the not enough. I remember nights of talking until we could not keep our eyes open, but not wanting to leave because leaving would mean thoughts and ideas and words left unexplored.

I remember wearing white, vowing ‘til death do us part, in sickness and in health, as long as we both shall live. Amen.

And then…

///

After seeing the movie, I read the entire Divergent series—three very thick novels—in four days. I couldn’t put it down. Not because it was especially good writing, but the storyline intrigued me, the suspense consuming. Plus it was a nice little distraction from my reality—the one that includes never-ending piles of laundry and mail, the 300 miles I drive every week, rarely venturing more than five miles from my house. Dystopia doesn’t seem so bad.

While I wish the characters would do something other than pinching the bridges of their noses or rubbing the backs of their necks or wiping their sweaty palms on their legs every other page, I found myself rooting for Tris and Four/Tobias. And I would rush through other plot lines and chapters to reach their next scene together. The silly schoolgirl in me went all a-flutter at their interactions, the building chemistry and tension, the what-is-he-thinking, the electricity. It’s a little ridiculous, I know. But I miss that.

If you’ve been married for more than a week, you know. Romantic love quickly yields to hard reality and tough choices. It doesn’t disappear, but sometimes it’s harder to find. The butterflies migrate, occasionally leaving indigestion in their wake.

But you still choose to love, you still decide to stay. Love is a decision, not simply a feeling. True love is joining together, yielding, serving, sharing, building. True love chooses to act lovingly, even when he does not deserve your kindness. True love accepts his kindness, even when you do not deserve to receive it. In other words

Love never gives up.
Love cares more for others than for self.
Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have.
Love doesn’t strut,
Doesn’t have a swelled head,
Doesn’t force itself on others,
Isn’t always “me first,”
Doesn’t fly off the handle,
Doesn’t keep score of the sins of others,
Doesn’t revel when others grovel,
Takes pleasure in the flowering of truth,
Puts up with anything,
Trusts God always,
Always looks for the best,
Never looks back,
But keeps going to the end.
(I Corinthians 13:3-7, The Message)

And here’s what I’ve discovered: choosing to act lovingly will produce loving feelings. The heart follows the head. The feeling follows the choice. Not the other way around. You don’t feel “in love” anymore? Welcome to adulthood. Pull up a chair; you’re in good and abundant company. The emotional rush of dating cannot sustain itself. Love craves something deeper, more intimate, more permanent. And when it matures, when we learn how to choose love, then we can choose to act lovingly. It takes work and will, and you might have to bite your tongue in half to keep your thoughts from slipping out. But the payoff is worth it.When we choose to act lovingly, we cannot help but stir affection. We cannot help but remember why we chose each other.

///

He smiles and keeps walking, and I lower my eyes back to my book. I hear the closing of drawers, the rattle of hangers, the shutting of cabinet doors in our closet. You totally scored with this one, you know. He puts away the laundry. Yum.

He walks back into the family room, sits down on the couch next to me, and picks up the remote.

“Hi.”

“Hey there.”

I rest my head on his shoulder, he places his hand on my knee, and together we share this sacred space of years and moments, loss and triumph, joy and grief. We drift through the light and shadow, ever entwined.