See You at the Next Stop

Life is a journey. So, for this part of the journey, I’ll be saying goodbye until the next stop: Ankaase, Ghana.

Thank you for your prayers, support, encouragement, and generosity. I never write short blog posts, but my mind is spinning with reviewing the contents of my suitcase, the action packer (thank you Asbury UMC!), and my electronics bag (darn that I have to carry that thing along). Thank you to all of you who donated computers, purchased bracelets, sent sponsor gifts, and committed to pray. I’m excited, nervous, and determined to pull a few of you along with me next time. When I return, the nagging will begin.

“Come to Ghana!”

I am.

See you on the other side of the globe…

The Saturday Fear Factor

Today is one of those beautiful Saturdays when one of the college kids is home, we all slept in, fall is around the corner, and we’re enjoying the blessing of home, hearth, and family. This is when we feel comfortable and safe within our walls and with each other. Ah, I love it.

And then I remember that I’m leaving all of this on Wednesday and flying to Africa. That doesn’t feel comfortable or safe right now. It feels scary.

This is the first time in preparing for this trip that I’ve had a moment of feeling like I’m insane. I felt it last time I traveled in May, so I should have known it was coming. In his very unsettling book, WreckedJeff Goins writes this:

“We are conditioned to believe that life is supposed to comfortable. But ask anyone…who has radically changed his life, and they’ll tell you the best decisions they made were when they were uncomfortable. History’s heroes know something the rest of us don’t: fear isn’t the enemy; inaction is. What we have to learn to do is lean into the things that hold us back, to move through the pain and push forward.”

I should have remembered that any time I am leaning into things that hold me back, the fear factor settles in and whispers in my ear, “You’re a little crazy.” I have sudden anxieties about what might happen to my family while I’m gone, or what might happen to me, and I feel like I’m alone in the boat. In the midst of all the packing, preparing the computers, gathering items for the students, and all the other things that must be done before Wednesday, I find myself looking around my house today and thinking that the easiest thing for me to do would be to quit all this ridiculousness. Who am I kidding? This is hard. And I am completely inadequate to do the tasks that are laid out before me.

I’m hanging on for dear life today, trusting by a thread. I want to curl up into a little ball on my couch with the cozy blanket and find a good Hallmark movie on cable. And I hate Hallmark movies. And cable.

Then I remember that I didn’t start any of this, and that’s the truth. God has done great things in spite of my fear and weakness. Or maybe because of it. I’m comforted by the possibility that God just might want to use those of who cower in fear and long for something easy. Maybe He plucks those people up and says, “Look what I can do through someone so weak.” And I’m not into false humility, so you should know that there are too many times when I run around acting as if I know what I’m doing so that no one discovers that I’m walking blindly, my arms out in front of me, hoping that God isn’t going to run me into a wall. But deep down I know that I am the weakest of the weak and I’m incredibly privileged if God allows me to join Him in anything.

I’ve come to the end of the day and realized that as Julian of Norwich said, “All will be well, and all manner of things will be well.” I’ll step off the plane in Accra and enter the world of Africa and God will change me just a little bit more in the ten days I am there. He’ll softly remind me that I can do all things through Him. And he’ll lead me down red dirt pathways with my arms out in front of me, trusting in the road that He has laid before me. I’m leaning into it. Call me crazy.

Join Us on the Front Porch: We’re All Messed Up

I’m a rut girl when it comes to exercise, which means that I walk the exact same route at the same pace every morning. And many mornings, I see my neighbor – who is quite old – sitting on her front porch with a cup of coffee. Some mornings she is completely unresponsive to my waves and greetings and although I’m not sure why, I suspect she has some form of dementia. It’s not the kind of thing I would want to ask her on a good day, so I haven’t. I just wave and greet her and accept the days when she gives me a blank stare. This morning, however, she was all there and her response to my greeting was the most refreshingly honest thing I’d heard all day (granted, it was early).

“Good morning!” I shouted to her.

“Well good morning!” She replied.

“How are you today?”

And in the happiest sing-song voice she said, “I’m completely, terribly messed up. How are you?”

And there it was. The blessed truth about every single one of us summed up by my sweet neighbor from the comfort of her front porch over a cup of hot java.

A church friend of mine pointed out that our trite, chanted greeting of “How are you?” is almost never met with an honest reply. She finds it an offensive greeting and seethes inside when someone asks her this as they hurriedly swoosh by. “Like they really want to know,” my friend says through clenched teeth. But like the rest of us, she usually gives the proper reply of, “Fine. How are you?” It’s just easier, she says, because no one wants to know how we really are. And most of the time, church is the place where we would be most likely to give the trite chanted reply because it’s the last place we would confess our messiness.

But I would like to join my neighbor on the porch and confess that on most days, I’m completely, terribly messed up. Here’s proof: I just finished writing my column for Mia magazine about how to simplify relationships, specifically with our children. I dashed off over 700 words about how far I’ve come as a parent and how I have learned that we miss the blessings in parenting when we are busy trying to control how our children turn out. In other words, enjoy your children more and bark at them less. Be more amused and less annoyed. And then, I stood up from my computer and barked at my daughter for something ridiculous. She tried to diffuse the moment with some humor, and I was not amused.

I give myself grace about these things, but they do confirm the truth that when I act as if I’ve got it all together, it’s a big facade. My word for 2012 is Descend, which is supposed to remind me throughout the year to be humble and comfortable with my own imperfections. It also helps me give grace to others around me who are imperfect. Somehow, this makes it easier to accept grace from God and take a deep breath. I don’t have to pretend that I’m better than you, or her, or him. Or that I’m moving toward some sanctimonious place where God will finally be pleased with me. Nope. I’m happy to sit on the front porch with my neighbor and give an honest reply to your greeting:

I’m completely, terribly messed-up. And how are you?

Keep Calm and Consider the Birds

A few months after my mother died, a mama bird made a nest in the floodlights of our back patio. While we sat in the cool spring air and reminisced about Mom, shedding tears and laughing over joyful memories, we watched this bird calmly build her nest, rest on her eggs, then swoop out and back to feed the new babies. It was a beautiful reminder that life goes on, but it was also an opportunity to have a close seat for bird-watching. I’m not usually enthralled with birds, but in the midst of our grieving, it was therapeutic. Since then, I haven’t really thought much about birds until I started on a recent journey of de-cluttering.

For the past few decades I’ve been mastering the art of complicating my life with far too much of everything. It reached a climax a little over a year ago. I had been in a free-fall descent into the insanity of busyness, accumulation, and worry and I hit bottom the week before we left for our three-week tour of China and South Korea. It was perfect timing. It helps to step into another crazy world when your own is crashing in on you. So now I am attempting to de-clutter. It’s not just my possessions. I’m also de-cluttering my commitments, my eating habits, my parenting, and my relationships. Last week I wrote my monthly column about  this for Mia magazine, which you can read here (yet another shameless plug). I’m working through this simplicity business so if you’re curious about how I plan to de-clutter these areas of my life, you might bookmark  Mia Magazine Online. I’ll be posting about it each month. And no, I’m not ditching friends or leaving my daughter to parent herself. But I have allowed junk to accumulate in my schedule, on my plate, and in the way I do relationships and parenting, so it’s time to clean it out and carry it to the curb.

In this journey toward simplicity, I’m thinking about the birds Jesus speaks of in Matthew 6 as he delivers the most amazing sermon on the side of a mountain. I like to read this passage from The Message translation because the language seems to correlate well with the setting.

If you decide for God, living a life of God-worship, it follows that you don’t fuss about what’s on the table at mealtimes or whether the clothes in your closet are in fashion. There is far more to your life than the food you put in your stomach, more to your outer appearance than the clothes you hang on your body. Look at the birds, free and unfettered, not tied down to a job description, careless in the care of God. And you count far more to him than the birds.

I know exactly zero people who live this out, including me. If I could calculate how much mental energy I have expended on food and clothes (and accessories), I would crawl shamefully into the nearest hole. Careless in the care of God? Not me. Free and unfettered? Don’t think so. And it’s not just food and clothes. Insert house, cars, vacations, finances, reputation, career. But life doesn’t work like that, we pragmatists say. People must give attention to making a living, putting food on the table, caring for our homes, looking our best, building a career. This is true, but we don’t just give attention to these things. We’re prone to obsess over them, depend on them, and I’ve done it for so long that I don’t know a good alternative way to live. And when I read radical words like “careless”, “free”, and “unfettered,” I tend to wave it off as Jesus going way overboard in order to make a point. But I’m guessing that Jesus didn’t say things he didn’t mean, and every translation of this sermon has him repeating the same message: calm down.

I’m working on it. It helps to read these words every morning to remind myself that a life of simplicity frees me to see things a little more clearly. And maybe if I toss out some of the clutter in my line of vision, I might be able to do a little bird-watching.

The Beauty of a Crazy Idea

“One hour of life, crowded to the full with glorious action and filled with noble risks, is worth whole years of those mean observances of paltry decorum.” – Sir Walter Scott.

I met Hajar on a Tuesday afternoon in 2008 in the courtyard of a hospital. A psychiatric hospital. In Azerbaijan.

A month earlier, some friends and I had this crazy idea of giving makeovers to the patients in the women’s ward of this hospital. “What if?” we said, which are two words that you should always avoid if you like to keep things simple and safe. But we weren’t in the mood for simple and safe. Instead, believing that the most absurd ideas are often the ones that make the most sense, we lifted our feet and stepped out of the box.

“What if we give the women makeovers?”

We looked around at each other – five of us on the team who were traveling to Azerbaijan the next month – as we imagined how that might work.

In Azerbaijan, the roles of most females are defined with narrow intention: marry and have babies, preferably sons. These two aspirations drive everything from superstitions to beauty regimens. When visiting Azerbaijan, I’ve been chided for sitting on bare concrete because it produces sterility and an unmarried friend was warned that her pencil thin eyebrows would cause men to mistake her for a married woman. A female who declares she desires to remain single shames the family, but a woman who marries and isn’t a good wife is worthless. Proper behavior and subjugation is required. Women who are defiant risk being swiftly diagnosed as schizophrenic and placed in a government run psychiatric hospital. A humanitarian worker who coordinated the painting, music and sewing classes in the hospital estimated that 75 percent of the women who live there had no mental problems upon arrival. They were, quite literally, dumped like yesterday’s rubbish.

For two years, we had taken ten days in the month of October to visit the city of Ganje, and on each trip we spent at least one day at the psychiatric hospital. The women there were eager to see anyone from the outside world, especially other women. The first time I visited the hospital two years earlier, my camera had caused the women to swarm around me, begging to be photographed and then roughly gesturing to view the image on the LCD screen. The hospital, a soviet-era building with gray cement walls, dark rooms, had a smell that defies description.

“Maybe we should think about a do-it-yourself project or something more tangible,” one male team member said and the other men seemed to sit a little straighter in their chairs, ready to start brainstorming. But the female team members were already miles ahead.

“We can give them each a ziploc bag with make-up so they have something that belongs to them,” a female team member said. Then the ideas started popping. “We can help them apply the make-up.” “Give them mirrors so they can see themselves.” “Give them a few beauty tips.” The table was evenly divided by gender enthusiasm-level. The men looked skeptical. The women were beaming.

“And what if we finish the makeover session by taking a portrait of each woman, get the photos developed that afternoon, and deliver them to the women in small frames the next day?”

By this time, the men were beginning to look less terrified, more resigned, and the crazy idea was a now a plan.

The next month, we packed 35 Ziploc bags, each filled with lipstick, eye-shadow, mascara, a mirror, and a comb. We had frames ready to slip the photos into. I had my camera. And six days later we were standing in the courtyard of the hospital with a crowd of women handing out the bags.

Mass chaos ensued.

Hajar was the first to grab her bag, and like most of the women, she had no idea how to open it. It seems that many of the women, including Hajar, had also forgotten how to apply the make-up. Lipstick ended up on cheeks, and mascara became eyeliner. The bags were ripped open quickly – the zip-lock mechanism ignored. I watched a gleeful young girl with blistering sores on her lips smear sultry brown lipstick across her mouth. Her head had been shaved but oily black hair was growing back in sprouts and tufts that shot out in wild angles despite the colorful scarf wound around her head. I shoved a bag into the hands of another bald woman, this one almost toothless. She ripped the bag open from the bottom and held the three items of make-up. If you saw her on the street you might not recognize her as a woman. She wore a baggy green sweat suit that gave no hint of shapeliness beneath, but she clasped the makeup in her fist triumphantly, victoriously, which gave me all the evidence I needed to know that she was, indeed, a woman. Some of the women hadn’t bathed or changed their clothes for days, but it didn’t matter. As soon as they had their lips painted and their eyelids slashed with shades of blues and greens, they were ready to be photographed. Their smiles were genuine, and they seem to be lifted out the medicated haze or the shuffling gait that had been characteristic of many of the women. Hajar, along with the other women, were not the only ones who were transformed.

These days, I’m thinking about the Ziploc bags and the lipstick on the cheeks as I remember the women of the Ganje psychiatric hospital. I wonder if somewhere, along with all the other possessions tucked between the thin mattress and the metal springs of their bed, is a photo in a frame. And I wonder if they take it out every now and then and gaze into the beauty of their own eyes.

I’m thinking about risk these days. And how it stretches our faith, makes our hearts pound, and makes the craziest ideas absolutely beautiful.

Is Anyone Out There Listening?

When Kyle and I started dating in college, I would often ask him this question during a long stretch of silence: “So…hey, what are you thinking about?”

His answer: “Nothing.”

“Come on, you were thinking about something. Do you just not want to share it?”

“I wasn’t thinking about anything.”

My thought: He’s lying.

For several years, I continued to ask this ridiculous question until I finally realized two things: 1) It was none of my business what he was thinking, and 2) he wasn’t lying.

In case you haven’t heard, men and women come from two different planets. I never can remember who is from Mars and who is from Venus, but I get the point. Our brains are wired differently, which is supposed to be why we love and fight with ferocity. So I finally stopped asking Kyle the question, “What are you thinking?” and simply marveled at the fact that there could be prolonged periods of time when there was literally nothing going through his mind. This has been confirmed for me many times over the years as I have remained married to this same man and then birthed and raised his son. Yes, men actually enjoy moments where there is a deep, long silence in the brain. No thoughts. No plans being made. No list-making. No playbacks of conversations. No strategizing, worrying, anticipating, grumbling, rehearsing. As Jerry Seinfeld says, “Men aren’t thinking about anything. We’re just walking around and looking at stuff.” That’s it. They’re not even thinking about what they are looking at. Blessed silence. Of course I know it isn’t always this way. Kyle has many things running through his mind, but at least he takes some breaks. I’m jealous.

The risk in writing honestly is that you might be assuming everyone knows what you’re talking about when the truth is you are the only one who has the problem. So if I’m the only female who seems to never have silence in her head, then the next time you see me you can smile kindly and hand me the contact number of a good therapist. But I don’t think I’m the only one. Women talk to one another, and my female friends and family members have confirmed that they simply can’t imagine having the luxury of inner silence. “It must be nice,” a friend said, “to be able to turn off the brain chatter.”

So this morning, when there were far too many problems I was trying to solve and endless ideas running through my head, I decided to stop, clear them out, and listen. It would have been nice if I had been standing in a field of songbirds or near a mountain stream, but I was in my bathroom putting on mascara. I heard the clock hands ticking, the water faucet outside running (Why is the water running outside? No, don’t think about that right now), the dog snoring, and my own breathing. When is the last time I listened to my own breathing? People who meditate talk about how important it is to focus on breathing, but I only do this when I am at the end of my morning run and trying to bring of a kind of rhythm to my gasps for air. Otherwise I take for granted that the breaths are coming in and going out. But this morning in my bathroom there were several minutes when I had absolutely not one thought. It was wonderful. And if someone had walked up to me and said, “Penny for your thoughts,” I would have replied, “Keep your penny.” Throughout the day, I tried to turn off the chatter so that I could listen to what was going on around me. Really listen. I didn’t hear anything dramatic, revolutionary, or life-changing, but maybe my overworked brain appreciated some moments of peace and quiet. I’m sure my soul needed the rest.

It’s funny though, the minute I finished my bathroom moment of silence I had to hurry and find out why that darn water was running. The 11 year-old was bored and watering dead plants, so I made a mental list of last-week-before-school-starts activities she can do and had a little guilt moment for not sending her to camp this week. Then I began to ponder why we don’t go to the library more often. And on it went. That’s a woman for you.

Saving Seats in Church

I grew up in the church I attend, which makes me a bit of a relic.

It’s an evangelical Baptist church and I live in the Bible belt, so it’s possible that I’m also somewhat religiously damaged.

It’s a good church though. We never heard sweaty preachers pounding the pulpit and screaming about the fires of hell. I walked the aisle after our vey intellectual white-haired doctoral degreed-pastor delivered a sermon from the book of Revelation. Maybe it’s all the same because when he took my hand I said, “I think I might be going to hell so here I am.” I was a dramatic adolescent, but it’s still a terrible way to start a faith journey. It’s my conversion story, however, and it probably confirms that I am, indeed, religiously damaged.

But aren’t we all?

My family always sat on the same side of our church sanctuary – about 11 rows back on three end seats. The family that sat in front of us consisted of three generations who took up about eight seats. And if you by accident forgot where your row was and sat in their seats, they asked you to move. I never found this odd, because we all had our places. My parents were fine to deviate a few rows or shift a few seats down when necessary, but it was rarely necessary. Visitors usually didn’t venture that far toward the front. They preferred the balcony where they could scan the crowd and keep a safe distance until they had a lay of the land. I don’t blame them.

One Sunday, a young couple dared to sit in the seats of the family in front of us. I had never seen this couple and they were quite obviously visiting or they would have known better than to sit in those seats. And then, the matriarch of the family came in and walked up the aisle to her row. “Excuse me,” she said leaning over and smiling tightly. Her little black purse was swinging from the crook of her arm. “Those seats are saved.”

In an instant, everything that I thought might be wrong with the church coalesced in those words. I was college-bound in a year and skirting the edges of cynicism. I sat in quiet embarrassment with my head buried in my Sunday school quarterly while the couple apologized, stood up, and scooted to the middle of the aisle. The hymns, sermon, choir songs, and everything else that made up that Sunday morning service was lost to me. I spent the entire hour glaring at the back of the old  lady’s head, wishing I was courageous enough at the end of the service to apologize to the young couple, but I just hurried out of the side of the sanctuary with a loose vow to never return.

But I returned.

And I’m still there.

As far as I know, no one saves seats anymore – or at least they don’t rudely claim them. But we still think there are those who just don’t deserve our seats. I may not be guilty of asking someone to get up and move, but I have jostled my way to the figurative communion table, thinking that I am somehow more deserving of the bread and the wine because I’ve been in the house for so long. But this is not true. I am not any more deserving than him. Or her. You know the one. The person whose sin turns our stomachs. That one individual who we smile at through clenched teeth because their lifestyle choice frightens us. We spend so much of our time protecting God by making sure that his house doesn’t get overrun with the kind of people that offend him. But God most certainly doesn’t need us to walk him across the street like he’s a little old lady.

Confession: This morning I withheld a kind comment that someone desperately needed because they were irritating me. It might seem small, but it’s not. I’m still pretty icky underneath my shiny exterior. My selfishness is not at the bottom of the hierarchy of what grieves God. Yet God welcomed me into His house and gave me the best seat and he still does. I want to do the same thing – to turn everything a little upside down by extending ridiculous grace to those who we label the worst offenders. Is this possible? I think it is. God does it every day. Maybe he’s waiting on some of us to stand up, gather up our baggage, and give our seats to the people we have barred from the house.

Children Here and There

Just so you know, there is a video at the conclusion of this post, but it’s cheating if you scroll to the bottom first.

It’s been almost three months since Erin and I boarded a 777 bound for Ghana. In Accra, the welcome sign in the Kotoka Airport boasts the country as “The Gateway to Africa,” and this may be true.  Economy Watch listed Ghana as the fastest growing economy in 2011, citing a GDP Growth Rate of 20.146%. The GDP is forecasted to grow by at least 8% in 2012. The country also has one of the strongest democracies in Africa, and President Obama’s travel there in 2009 was viewed as endorsement of Ghana’s stability. It’s younger urban population has a growing middle class that is smart, educated, and committed to improving conditions in the country. The airport sign may not be a far-fetched boast.

And then, you enter the villages.

Suddenly all the talk of a bourgeoning economy, foreign investment, and a strong democracy seem irrelevant. Many roads are impassable and houses are crumbling because of erosion. Schools are under-resourced and often lack basic supplies and trained teachers. To be fair, these conditions exist in the cities, but the cities are also where things get noticed – and perhaps addressed. The villages are harder to get to, have few resources, and feel far removed from the booming economic growth that is taking place in both Accra and Kumasi. But it was in the villages that we met the children. We spent time in after-school tutoring sessions with six beautiful boys and girls ages 7 to 18.

There is a familiar sentiment that goes like this: “children are children everywhere.” I can almost agree with that when I watch a 10-year-old Ghanaian boy stuff three pieces of pink bubblegum in his mouth, knowing that given the option, that is exactly what my 11-year-old daughter back in the U.S. would do. On the roadside in the village where we worked, I saw two little girls in tattered dresses sitting cross-legged in front of a small fruit stand where, hopefully, their mother was scratching out some kind of existence to feed them. They were facing one another and happily doing one of those little-girl hand clapping games while chanting in the regional language, Twi. And in an orphanage, I saw chalked hopscotch squares in the courtyard and inside found children sprawled in front of an old console television set. Children there are really just the same as children here, people like to say. But they’re not. Yes, they love bubblegum, hopscotch, and hand-clapping games, but then there is the reality of life in a developing country.

Consider this: Children there have impoverished parents who sometimes feel desperate enough to sell them into servitude. Children as young as four years old end up on Lake Volta untangling nets from beneath fishing boats in cold, dark waters. And sometimes they die in those cold waters. It’s called child trafficking and it’s prolific in Ghana.

Children there are fortunate if their parents can pay for school supplies and uniforms through their high school years. And in the rural villages, transportation is not provided for children to and from school. After primary school, the dropout rate in Ghana is high. Children who leave school are put to work to help feed the family, hoisting bowls on top of their heads to carry water bags, SIM cards, fruit and other items to peddle, or they work the family farm (which usually consists of one or two crops of vegetables and fruit). Sometimes, they are just needed at home to provide care for younger children, which ends their childhood far too early.

Children there are not given names as infants until they are 10 days old. If they die before then, it makes it easier to bury them and move on.

It’s overwhelming and much easier to revel in the “children are children everywhere” sentiment than to admit that there is a deep and wide injustice at work in the world when it comes to those who are the most vulnerable.

What to do?

We asked the same question, and came up with what seemed like a small answer, but we’re going with it.

We found a village. Actually, it found us. Ankaase is located in the Ashanti region of central Ghana, and the name means “under the orange tree.” It’s a place with streets and fields of red clay dirt, houses that have been cobbled together with tin and boards, and families who will welcome you to their home by pulling up chairs in the front dirt and asking you to tell your story. This is the place where we met our six children and their families. This is where we laughed with them, cried for them, and realized that our hearts will forever be intertwined with this village. We want to get creative, courageous, and maybe a little crazy about what we can do in this place. We returned home with more than sweet sentiments for the children there. We brought home in our hearts a village, and the resolve to make a difference for the children who live in this small corner of Africa’s gateway.

Last Week’s Lessons from Ugandan Women

There are those moments when everything in your life gets put in sharp, pointed, and sometimes painful perspective. Last Thursday, I sat at a friend’s kitchen table with two women from a small village in Uganda who taught me more about life than anyone has in years. And that is not an off-the-cuff statement. I mean it.

One of the women is a widowed mother of twelve children, some biological and some orphaned, and the other a young mother of eight biological children and six orphaned children. They live in the midst of sorrow because they watch as death and abandonment unfolds on a daily basis. Consider this:

  • In the months of December 2011 and January 2012, 14 women in their tiny village died in childbirth.
  • Many of the orphans that are housed in the complex they live in (a church, parsonage, orphan homes) are members of large sibling groups whose parents have died of AIDS.
  • Children as young as eight and nine come to the church for help with younger siblings in tow because they have run out of food. The parents have died and these young heads of households have nowhere to turn after having exhausted their food supply.
  • Some of the children in their complex have been infected with HIV and must receive antiretroviral medicines daily.

In the midst of all this suffering, the women have no time to sit around and lament the conditions that surround them. Why? Because there is work to be done. Work. Here is a typical day in the life of a woman living in a Ugandan village:

  1. Wake up early
  2. Sweep the house (floors get dusty and dirty overnight)
  3. Walk 2-3 miles to fetch the water (no taps, faucets, or indoor plumbing)
  4. Clean the dishes to prepare for breakfast
  5. Make breakfast (this is a longer process than you might think)
  6. Get the children up, get them ready for school, prepare something for them to take to school to eat midday
  7. Take the goats out to pasture, feed the pigs
  8. Fetch firewood for cooking two more meals (this is done with baby on the back, baby on a hip, and firewood on the head…wanna try that?)
  9. Prepare lunch (again, a longer process than you might think)
  10. Make the trek to fetch more water (still juggling the babies)
  11. Work the crops
  12. Welcome the children home
  13. Bring the goats in from the pasture
  14. Fetch more water
  15. Prepare dinner (again, a longer process than you might think)

“We work like horses,” one of the women said with a wry smile. It was amazing that in the midst of relating the sorrowful conditions in their village, the plight of the orphans they care for, and the hardships of women in their country, my two new friends sprinkled in lots of laughter. Not the polite, phony kind of laughter, but sincere, joy-filled laughter that comes from a deep place of contentment. These are women that do not, and cannot, depend on their circumstances to produce this laughter, joy, and peace. I, however, spend far too much time allowing my circumstances to determine whether I am up, down, or somewhere in between. Oh, I fake it well by not sharing these ups and downs with everyone around me, but they are there most of the time. And so many times they are petty: a frustrating work experience; an off-handed comment from someone; a sore knee on a day when I want to run; not enough money in the savings to buy something I think we need (I confuse needs and wants); parenting struggles. I know these are real issues, but on certain days I’m so driven to a sour mood by these circumstances that you would think I was carrying firewood on my head and two babies on my body. I only admit this because I’m hoping there are those of you who struggle with this same thing. If not, I’ve gone too far out on the limb, which wouldn’t be the first time.

We live in a culture riddled with depression and anxiety, but we live cushy lives by the world’s standards. It really doesn’t compute, however I don’t have an answer for it. All I know is that when I am with people who are joyful despite their circumstances, it puts things in perspective for me. So I’m thinking that perhaps it would do the people around me some good if I was this type of person as well. I have it in me, I just forget that. I let the circumstances control me, instead of remembering that I have control of my attitude toward those circumstances. The thing is, I don’t want to be phony about it and I don’t like the philosophy that says you have to smile first and then you’ll feel it. Those are usually phony smiles. I’d rather find the way to actually feel this and live it from the inside out, not from the outside only. There are too many of us playing that game and I think most of us can tell the difference. Any anyway, faking it probably causes a fair amount of depression and anxiety.

Every day, I must be driven back to the truth that everything I need, I already have. There is a different message that gets blasted at me every moment of every day, but it’s up to me to remember that I don’t need a life that is bigger, better, faster, louder, smoother, more predictable, or less chaotic. I need a life that is lived from a deeper place than the surface stuff that pulls me in all directions. And I need the perspective of  those who live this out with gracious joy. Thank you, sisters. Your life is a testimony and your laughter gave me vision.

A Valentines Day Tribute: Failures, Detours, and the Myth of the Perfect Marriage

I fell in love with my husband on our college campus when I was 19 and he was 20. He had shaggy blond hair and a smile that made me feel kind of tipsy. My friend introduced us as we passed him behind Raley Chapel and here’s how the conversation went: (of course he has no recollection of this; I remember every second of every detail)

“I have to go write a paper,” he told my friend after she introduced us and invited him to join us at a local ice cream shop.

“Well, you’re no fun,” I quipped, in a pitiful attempt at flirting (I was dismal at it).

“How about when we get married I let you write all my papers?” he replied.

This one little meant-absolutely-nothing statement carried me for months. I still have no idea where it came from. Probably just his attempt to return my comment with something equally pitiful. He didn’t flirt well either. But at several points in our relationship I actually believed he had some sort of romantic premonition of our future. We were meant to be together, I would tell myself. Soul mates. Destined. Created for him. He for me. Completion. It was all very beautiful, and it lasted until exactly four weeks after we got married. Since he graduated college the year ahead of me and headed back east to law school, most of our dating and engagement was spent in different states. We got married six days after he moved back to town. I was giddy at the thought that we would never be separated again, and that we could finally begin this most-perfect union of two soul mates who were always destined to be together. The illusion and the honeymoon ended with a heated and ugly argument about something I cannot recall. That afternoon I had not one thought about us being soul mates, destined for one another, created for one another, completed by one another. In fact, I actually threw something at him. It was something soft, like a pillow maybe, but he still ducked. I also drove to my parent’s house and told them I was sleeping on their couch that night.

“You get in that car and go home,” my mother said as she gathered up my belongings and opened the front door to usher me back out of her house. “What did you think this was, easy?”

Yes, as a matter of fact I did. I thought he was cute, and smart, and I knew that he was completely in love with me. And I was completely in love with him. And from “this day forward” meant that these two destined lovers would make this relationship more perfect as time went by. Before the heated argument, I could have written a love song. I was so enraptured. So full of romantic notions. And so very wrong about marriage.

I thought that a successful marriage meant that we would look back over the decades and be filled with pride at our accomplishments. We would be able to put on display all the promises we kept, the vows we fulfilled, the honor we brought to the institute of marriage.

Well, not so much.

We have stumbled and fallen hard. We have taken detours and shortcuts. We have failed epically at times, and then blamed one another. And yes, we have gone to bed angry and without apologies. I could write a book about breaking the marriage rules. Not all of the rules, but enough of them.

I’m a controlling perfectionist, so I’ve spent lots of time trying to figure out how to do this marriage thing better – how to make it stronger. But here’s what I’m slowly and painfully learning: the failures are what make us better and stronger. Each time we hurt one another with words or actions, we dig our heels in and go deeper into the truths of humility, forgiveness, and grace. You don’t learn forgiveness unless you are faced with forgiving. You don’t learn humility unless you get knocked off your pride perch. And you don’t learn grace until someone loves you even when you absolutely, positively do not deserve it.

So on this most contrived of holidays – St. Valentine’s Day – I’m thinking about love and realizing that I would not go back and change one moment of my marriage. I bought a Valentine’s Day card for Kyle with a photo on the front of two little kids crashing their bikes into each other. On the inside it says: “So glad we ran into each other.” Sometimes love is simply a deep down gratefulness that God brought us together as kids in one silly moment behind the chapel, and that he continues to show Himself in a million ways through the joys and pain of what He has knit together. My mother was right. It isn’t easy. But I don’t want easy. I want something so real and authentic that even the scars are beautiful.

Happy Valentine’s Day, husband. Your smile still does it for me, every time.

Gift Bags for the Red Lights

It happened again last week.

As I was approaching a red light after exiting the expressway, I saw the man sitting on the side of the street holding a cardboard sign that said Anything Helps. I watched the light, hoping it would turn green so that I could slide on through without having to stop right next to him and either a) pretend I didn’t notice him, or b) hand him a dollar simply because my 11-year-old daughter was sitting in the passenger’s seat. If it’s just me, I can make excuses. If she’s with me, not so much.

“Why don’t we help him?” she used to ask when she was younger. I don’t think my answers to her questions held much water:

We can’t help everyone that holds a sign.

We really don’t know if he’s in trouble. Sometimes people run scams pretending to need help.

I don’t have any money.

“I do!” she piped up once, but the light turned green and it was time to move.

“What’s a scam?” she asked another time, and I spent the next two miles trying to gently explain that sometimes things are not what they seem, and then sometimes they are, and sometimes we help when we’re not sure simply because it’s the right thing to do, but sometimes we don’t help because we have to be cautious because bad people use other people to get money. She nodded, but my rambling, convoluted explanation was lost on her two green lights back.

Now she stays silent because she has seen the sign and others like it so many times, and she has watched me inch my way past the sign-holder without even a glance. But I know what she’s thinking. The unasked question rings in my ears every time I see that cardboard sign: “Why don’t we help him?”

Why don’t we help him?

Sometimes I really don’t have any money, so I’m off the hook. And other times the light is green, so I’m off the hook with that, too.

But there are times when the light is red, and he (or she) is directly next to my driver side window, and I have multiple bills in my pocket. It’s at that moment that I have to wrestle with the question of why I stare straight ahead and pretend the person isn’t there holding a sign asking for help. Maybe she’s a phony. But maybe she isn’t. Maybe he’s being pimped. But maybe he isn’t. Maybe if he told me the truth about why he sits in the heat and the cold holding a cardboard sign in front of his chest, his story would break my heart. Really, what should my response be?

I don’t want to come up with an answer that either assuages my guilt or protects my self-interest. I want to find the answer that plunges me into God’s restoration project, even if it doesn’t make very much sense. Lately, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about this restoration that God is doing. That’s what he does, in case we’re not very clear on that. He is about the business of fixing this broken world and the people in it. If that’s all you ever know about God, that’s all you need to know. He makes the dingy shiny, the ugly beautiful, the crooked straight. It’s his delight. But he almost never does it the way we think he should. His ideas about how to restore the broken world are way off our radar screen (think baby born in stable to impoverished teenager). And the most unbelievable way God does this (not the way I would have chosen) is to use broken, dingy, crooked people like me to join him in the restoration project.

So, I have to ask myself as I sit at the red light next to the man with the cardboard sign, what exactly is God wanting to restore?

Here’s what I think: He wants to restore that moment when I look at another human being, a deeply-loved creation, and care not one whit about why they are sitting by the side of the road. He wants to restore the cynicism and the apathy in me because they really bring nothing of value to his restoration project. He wants to restore me (certainly an ongoing and frustrating process) so that I can link arms with others and continue what began in the stable.

So here is what Alison and I are doing, crazy as it may sound. We’re assembling gift bags for the red lights.

We are placing in a gallon-size ziploc bag:

1 stocking cap

1 pair of socks

1 granola bar

1 $5 Quik Trip gift card (yes, I know they could buy beer with it)

small toothbrush and toothpaste

a personal note

The total cost of the bag is about $8. I’d like to find ways to cut the cost so that we could give out more bags, but this is my starting place. And I completely stole this idea from the book The Missional Mom lest you think I am creative. And lest you think I am strutting around boasting about my good deeds, I am not. I believe when we come together and share ideas for how we might might make the world a better place, we take another small but beautiful step in this restoration that God is doing through us.

The Word for 2012: Descend


2011 was the first year I made New Year’s resolutions. I found a template from a book I read over Christmas break last year that allowed me to make a spreadsheet of my resolutions and chart my progress. I could categorize, document, journal, and monitor my own resolution-keeping. I spent a week making my spreadsheet. I chose my reading material for the year (Resolution #4: Read 20 books that interest you), assessed my strengths (Resolution #8: choose a new hobby based on personal strengths), categorized my family and friends (Resolution #6: prioritize and invest in meaningful relationships), prepared a “purge page” (Resolution #7: create more breathing space in the rooms of my house), and made a bucket list (Resolution #1: Complete at least one life goal to check off my list). I actually had a file folder for my 2011 Resolutions and Goals and was buzzing with energy to check my spreadsheet every week, which was pinned to the bulletin board above my desk. I had subsets of smaller goals that were connected to the larger goals. I even journaled about my progress (small goal related to Resolution #1). January was exhilarating. February was a little slower, but I maintained. March was frustrating, and by April I felt like I was about to implode on myself. In May, I happily threw away my spreadsheet, ditched my journal, and regarded my “Happiness Project” an epic fail. I was sick and tired of devising ways to make myself better, happier, more comfortable, more content, more “purged of the clutter within my house and my mind.” I felt icky with self-obsession and I swore off the resolution-making.

So when the time came to think about 2012 and what this year might bring, I reminded myself of last year’s project. I resolved to make no more self-salvation, self-improvement resolutions. Instead, Kyle and I decided to simplify and each choose one word that describes our focus for 2012. I knew immediately what my word would be.

Descend.

It’s the 180-degree turn from last year’s self-obsessed focus. I didn’t choose this word because I know how this works. I chose this word because I don’t know how this works and I have a deep need to learn what it means to stop the endless and exhausting work of trying to climb up. I want to know what it means to go down.

Down into the truth that I don’t need to compete, prove anything, or work hard to be better.

Down into the places where life gets chaotic, uncomfortable, and messy.

Down into the moments where my own agenda and needs might go unmet to meet the needs of someone else.

Down with people who don’t feed my self-preservation instincts, but instead, force me to step outside myself to insure their preservation.

I want to descend down into the truth that “it’s not about me.” (This is the first line of Rick Warren’s book The Purpose-Driven Life…a book I read because its title spoke to my Type A, get-er-done spiritual self). But it’s not about me. And that makes me sad. Oh, how I want it to be about me, because it’s easier to think about ascending than descending. I’ve already admitted that I have a strong self-preservation instinct, which means I spend a lot of time fluffing my nest. I want to be comfortable and secure and I want people to like me and to think highly of me. I want my house clean, my clothes stylin’, my hands scrubbed, my reputation spotless, my work impressive, and my future bright.

And I’m exhausted trying to secure these things for myself. It’s time to lean over the edge and contemplate what it might mean to descend, even if the view is blurry and unpredictable.

My word for 2012 has no large goals and smaller subset goals attached to it. It doesn’t have a checklist of “10 steps to descent.” I haven’t created a spreadsheet for tracking purposes and I don’t have a designated journal in which to muse about my progress. But I’m not winging it. I have a high standard of emulation. Instead of more navel-gazing, I want to steadily focus my gaze on the One who descended first. In fact, I actually can’t do this. My need for control and my legalistic list-making, box-checking nature keep me from begin able to let go and head down. I need God to lead the descent. I’m looking up so that I can move down the rungs. Easy to say. Hard to do. But He told me that if I did all this, he would give me something I greatly need this year: rest.

So, goodbye 2011.

Hello 2012.

Let the adventure begin.