Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Barefoot Mama in the Snow: on easy kindness

Yesterday a young mom caught my eye as I drove past the hospital; she was carrying a baby, struggling with a collapsed stroller, a toddler beside her. At first glance I thought she was barefoot in the snow, but then I saw her inadequate flip flops. 

Surely someone will help her fix the stroller, I assured myself. She was on a well traveled pedestrian sidewalk. But in my rear view mirror I noticed two men walk right past.

You know those little conversations you have with yourself . . . but they sound like conversations with God? That's what I had going on in my van.

You should turn around and go help her with the stroller. It's impossible to fix with one hand and she can't set the baby down in the snow. 

But I'll be late, God. I have to pick Cambria up. 

When have you been early anyway?  Why start now? 

I said okay, God, and retraced my route. I prepared to park so I could help and that's when she crossed the street to the bus with her babies, smiling at the bus driver. She had wanted  the stroller collapsed. I watched in disbelief. She didn't need any help at all (except some warm boots) . . . and she was long gone. 

Back to my regularly scheduled route. 

Why did You make me do that, God? You knew she didn't need any help at all. Now I'm late for no reason, not even kindness! 

I waited, quiet, as I drove, thinking hard. 

Like a film reel, my mind replayed all the times earlier in the day that I had been unwilling and too exasperated to inconvenience myself for Daniel, for Eli; if I could stop for an unknown barefoot mama in the snow, why couldn't I, why wouldn't  I stop to help someone I loved deeply?

Is that what You wanted to teach me, God? 

Isn't it always cooler to help the barefoot mama? Isn't it really the easier choice? I'm so very good at kindness to strangers. There's no commitment to those acts of service, those friendly smiles; while still important, maybe it just makes me feel good.

Kindness at its most unselfish doesn't make me feel good. It makes me feel spent and used and so painfully aware that there is nothing truly good in me; goodness comes from God and is a fruit of His Spirit.

Kindness is hard. 

Kindness isn't natural. 

Kindness starts in my heart at home. 

Never let loyalty and kindness leave you; 
{especially with the ones I love the most}
tie them around your neck as a reminder.
{because it's so easy to forget} 
Write them deep within your heart. (Proverbs 3:3)

Monday, June 22, 2015

10 reasons you should go on vacation with your (whole) family

When you think about hopping in your van and road tripping away to spend time with family, it sometimes seems like more work than it's worth.  Here's ten unofficial reasons why you should make the effort.

1)  Because they drive you nuts

Whenever I write (or talk) about spending time with our families, people ask me how we all get along, why our family is so happy and other such mumbo jumbo. There is a simple answer here: we don't and we aren't. I am not sure I know of another family who fights quite as passionately as mine; we should be Italian, but we have no ethnicity to blame except sin.  And our families aren't happy all the time at all! Since we are people, we all have complicated lives, pain, heartaches, messes, loneliness, stupid choices and consequences, drama and frustration.  We don't even like each other sometimes. Here are just a few of the many name tags I could wear at family reunions, awarded because of my own actions: Boss, Control Freak, Drama Queen, Feminist, Most-Unwilling-to-Let-it-Go.  

But we keep showing up, and that's probably what is unique. The crazy thing about family is that you're stuck with each other whether you like it or not.  Vacationing together is embracing the whole mess: we're stuck together, we might as well enjoy some great scenery. 

Look at it this way: even if you don't have fun with your family, at least you can enjoy the beach, which may put you in a better mood, which may help you have fun with your family.
We allllmost didn't do this little crazy campfire, late at night on the beach. . . but Daniel's sister Karen
talked us all into it.  Well, actually, she said: "I'm going, guys!" and took all the s'more ingredients and
fire lighting stuff with her.  She's pretty awesome.  (We all followed.)
S'mores on the Pacific

2) Because you can ('t) afford it 

This is one of the most common excuses used by people who don't want to go on vacation with family and I think it is just that: an excuse.  We have spent time with family in every stage of our financial lives and have never regretted using our money in that way.

We did it when we had nothing (well, not nothing, but almost nothing).  Living on one income with a tiny baby and charging our tickets to Seattle on our Visa, we had to humbly admit to Daniel's family that we couldn't afford a rental car (could they pick us up at SeaTac and bring an extra car?);  we contributed exactly zero dollars to the week spent at a lake house on the Washington State / Canadian border. We ate peanut butter sandwiches and cooked in instead of eating out;  we toured a border town during an infamous drug tunnel bust (we were pulled over and questioned twice) (it was hilarious). We played spoons and paddle boated, took canoes out on the lake and watched the sun set; we critiqued whole music albums and watched movies at one in the afternoon; Daniel's dad carried fussy Jacob on hikes and we picnicked, bonfired, stayed up late and slept in.  It was a magical week that we still talk about, ten years later.  We couldn't afford to go, but looking back, we regret nothing about spending $500 to build and invest in relationships.

Spending time with family when you can't afford it means you will also spend time with them when you can. It's good to be honest about financial limitations and find common ground and activities that everyone can take part in without great financial strain, but at the end of the day, why have money at all, if you can't use it to enjoy time with people you love?

3) Because no one will remember the gift card you sent for a birthday, but you will remember the shared experiences.
Who would have guessed the stormy outcome on that infamous sunny boat outing ten years ago?
Not us, for sure, but the treacherous trip home is something we still talk about!

4) Because vacationing together speaks the love language of everyone

Gifts: it is going to feel extravagant, no matter the cost, to all the gift-loving people. Even a free vacation isn't free; filling your vehicle with gas is a cost, time off of work equals money not earned, clearing a place in your schedule means you are assigning value to the group of people with whom you are spending your time. 
Quality Time:  nothing says I want to spend time with you like clearing your schedule to go somewhere with the fam.
Words of Affirmation: admittedly this may be the most difficult love language to speak while on vacation, but it will invariably happen because there is ample time to say them.  And affirming vacation words often happen in looking back at time spent together: ex. We were all faint with hunger after you made us search Chicago on foot for the perfect lunch spot, but I'm glad you made us keep going because that shawarma was the bomb.
Acts of Service are a reason some people don't want to go on vacation.  There are countless opportunities to serve your family when you're all stuck together. Like, you could give the last ounce of your bug spray to your brother in law.  
Physical Touch: whaaat? This one doesn't even need to be explained.  All the huggy people who don't have any personal space love vacations. Vacation is a huggy person's secret weapon. 

There are more than fifteen people in this fifteen passenger van.

5) Because being stuck with people for an extended time frame forges strong bonds.  There is something very bonding about camping with the entire family in tents while a severe thunderstorm rolls through at 3am. I was almost relieved to climb into the van to escape the storm since someone had left our tent pet door open and let in approximately 40,000 mosquitoes. Some vacations bond you almost like army buddies: nothing about the trip is fun except that it's over and you still have each other.

6) Because vacation puts everyone on the same schedule.  If you haven't noticed, Americans are fantastically busy creatures.  Even if relatives come to see us, it's hard to disentangle ourselves from commitments, jobs and responsibilities. This doesn't seem to bother anyone, but it can be a strain if Johnny takes a day off to visit Joe and Joe chooses to still work. Johnny can think: "Well, why am I spending my time off chatting with my sister in law while my brother works? awkward! "  Vacation solves this problem beautifully, especially with poor cell service and no wifi!

7) Because going away to a neutral location creates a more neutral environment.  Since no one is really in charge, there aren't really any house rules to break.  People aren't all descending on Susie's house and eating her out of house and home, leaving with a mess that'll take days to recover from. On the contrary, everyone is responsible and it is really amazing how well this works.  The people who always host get a break, and the people who don't always get a chance to host - get a chance. It levels the playing field.

8) Because you don't have to spend a lot of money to have fun together. Some of the most amazing trips with our families have been so very cheap.  My whole family goes canoeing every year to the same campground. This is not an expensive trip, but it is a fun one. It is hosted by a different person every year, and it is their job to choose dates, plan activities, and assign a meal to everyone. It is a highlight of the year for everyone, even if your canoe tips. (I can say it is a highlight because my canoe has never, ever, tipped.  I am jinxing myself right now.)

9) But if you are going to spend a lot of money, it's more fun to spend it with family. Why would you even want to go to a Black Hawks hockey game by yourself? Wouldn't it be more fun to go to the zoo with all the cousins?  Who wants to sit at the ocean by themselves? (Well, actually, it's very fun to sit at the ocean by yourself, but good news:  the ocean is huge, and there's plenty of room for the entire tribe to have beach solitude.)
(You would have yelled this loud at that Black Hawks game, too.)

10) Because life is very short.  That's all.  

Monday, February 23, 2015

Comforters Are Brave

[God] is asking you. . . to value your comfort less than the privilege of comforting others.
Peter Greer, The Spiritual Danger of Doing Good, Chapter 12, page 133

I stand in Walgreen's alone, staring at the card rack.  Everyone close to me is hurting in wildly different ways and I have no idea what to say.  I am a case study in what not to say. 

I'll buy a card.  I'll let Hallmark speak for me. 

I am afraid of hurting more, of doing more damage than has already been done, of driving knives deeper and opening up wounds; of widening a distance if I'm unable to explain my heart.

I scan the themes.

Cope.  That's a good heading. I pull a card out of the rack. 

And we know that all things work together. . .

I can't even finish reading the overdone scripting of the overused verse. 

Christians are phenomenally good at cliches.  It's our secret weapon.  I've been wounded by the secret weapon and I put the card back.

As I pull each card out and read each confident caption, I feel like I hear a disappointed, unprinted echo.

God is good all the time. It doesn't seem like it right now.

You'll get through this.  What if you don't?

The Lord will deliver you.  But He might not.

He cares for you!  Then why is my life falling apart?

You're strong.  This is a bigger mess than anyone knows and I'm so very weak.

I am struck, suddenly, that countless people stood in this same aisle and wondered what to say to me.  I was the broken one and they spoke life.  

It's my turn to comfort now and I didn't know how hard it was to be the comforter.

I know who the good comforters are.  These are the people that you want in your corner.  They don't ask what you need, they just do it. They show up and bring food or mow your lawn or just hang out with you.  They warn you when maybe you're getting stuck. They risk your wrath and tell you anyway.  They are in it for the long road.  They don't hand out solutions. 

But me- I don't know what to say to broken marriages, broken dreams, broken relationships.  I am afraid, and I say nothing.

For the last five years, I've felt I had some answers when someone loses a child.  I have unconsciously known what to say and what not to say, and I've not been afraid to be involved, send a text, make a phone call or show up on a doorstep.  I wonder if this response has become a bit skewed.  It's so familiar to me and while still shocking and senseless, grief follows a very similar course for each person traveling it.  I feel I recognize the markers in myself and others, too.  Have I lost the sharp agony?  Maybe a little.  Have I lost the fear of being vulnerable and risking being hurt by involvement?  I absolutely have.

I think I've become a bit over-confident and now, faced with different kinds of pain, I am at a complete loss.  I have no answers.  I am confused too.  There is no reference point.  I am not sure I even have hope to offer and I am silent.

The answers I have for grief from personal experience don't quite fit the same into other scenarios and even as I write, I am disappointed in my self-developed checklist for helping others.  It's deceptively easy to bring checklists into hard stuff.

1)  Bible verse
2)  You'll be ok
3a) Send card
3b) Send money
3c) Send flowers
4)  If you're not ok, get some counseling
5)  You're still not ok? More counseling

But comforters know that checklists are best for business and accomplishing tasks and ultimately only for freeing our energies for the really important things. 

Recently I asked a friend: hypothetically, how would you care for someone who was facing loss? I anticipated a short message in reply, but instead I received these wise words:
Showing them that you care is the best thing you can do while it's still fresh. Don't give them advice. Yet. Give them hope (specific to the disappointment). They'll have to accept it first which will take a while and during that time the hope will take away some of that "sick" feeling. Tell them that you are sorry for them. But most of all being there in a supportive role is huge. It's not up to you to make them feel better. You can only help a little bit. It's something they're going to have to deal with internally. After a while, let them know that God has His best in store for them and while this is painful now, what He has instead in the future will make them much happier than what they wanted now.
Right now their hearts are heavy. The hope that you give them lifts it a little and for a bit they feel it's weight is shared. And that is the best thing you can do.
I think scripture helps after a while but right now sharing a verse with them feels very cold and uncaring even if it wasn't meant to be. It will help later. Sharing a story from the bible however that relates to them is very good. It lets them know that someone else suffered the same thing and it turned out good in the end.

Shocking events make you shake your head and ask why. They don't make sense and  they make us numb. I think sometimes life doesn't have a reason for what happens -- it just does. Solomon said a bad thing can happen to a good person just like an innocent bird gets caught in a net. It doesn't work out better in the end for the bird. It just happens. It's hard to see a reason for it.
Wisdom comes from the house of sorrow. And wisdom is the most important thing to attain because it's profitable in all things. As hard as sorrow can be and as much as it takes, it does give wisdom. And wisdom is worth learning. Speaking for myself, I didn't, couldn't, sometimes can't, see a reason for some disappointing things in my life but one thing I can say is through them I've learned a small portion of wisdom and it makes up for some of the things I've lost. Hopefully someday it will make up for all of them and then some. Here's to hoping. [shared with permission]

Because we so love checklists, here's a little list, not of tasks, but of heart attitudes I found in the words above:

care while the need is still fresh

withhold immediate advice

extend hope

say you're sorry

be there

realize you can't make it better

be patient

share the weight

be slow to hand out Bible verses, rather take the time to dig into the Word for meaningful hope

go ahead and shake your own head and ask why

enter in to the pain

and understand that bad things happen to good people for no apparent reason.

So years later, I am in the shoes of the brave comforters who came to us.  Looking back, I realize that they didn't know what to say either, but they didn't stay silent.  Many hadn't any idea what we were going through, but they still stood with us in the rubble of all of our mess and gave us some strength to hold on to.  I realize now that it's a special kind of bravery that sits in the ashes of someones life and holds them tight. 

God, forgive me for thinking that I have answers for anything, because I don't. 

God, help me be brave enough to show up with empty hands.

God, help me to comfort and not wound. 

God, please help me to be a safe place. 

Mission Drift by Peter Greer

Why do people stray so far from sincerely good beginnings?  This question intrigues and frightens me, which is why I was interested in Peter Greer's sharp yet hopeful critique of why and how drift happens. It's a bit heavier than Greer's usual writing style because of his meticulous research and carefully reported examples.

The most interesting aspect of the book to me was that names were named, both as positive and negative examples of drifting from an initially clear purpose.  Compassion International, World Vision, the YMCA, Harvard, Yale and InterVarsity are all organizations to learn from, on varying ends of the drifting scale.

"You can't assume that a mission will take care of itself," stated Dr. Gene Habecker, President at Taylor University. "It will atrophy if you don't aggressively manage it in an ongoing way and continually reaffirm and integrate it into everything that you do over and over and over again.  Mission management is never over.  It's never done."
Mission Drift, page 51 

Staying true to where God calls you requires that your mission statement have clarity and vision and an awareness that we are so prone to wander. This book was helpful to me from a variety of angles: charity, church, business involvement and even as a mom.

Disclaimer: Bethany House provided this book to me for free in exchange for an honest review.