Thursday, July 24, 2014

God's Provision in a Plastic Container

Yesterday K made me an offer I couldn't refuse.
"Mom, can we spend some time together cleaning and organizing my room?"

It was an especially welcomed suggestion since my girl is not exactly marked by neat and orderly tendencies. My energizer bunny would much rather be climbing a tree or conducting a science experiment than sorting, folding or straightening indoors!

I didn't ask any questions, but chose to accept it as a kind gesture. After dropping the boys at tennis this morning, we set out to tackle the project. I didn't want to risk her enthusiasm having a chance to wane.

Before long, music was blaring, stacks were being formed and her room was shaping up. After two hours we had a large black garbage bag full of trash and neat cabinets and drawers.

My little one is a bit of a pack rat with sentimental attachment to lots of things, so I was surprised by the number of formerly treasured items she was setting aside "for someone else to enjoy." We managed to fill a large plastic bin.

As I closed the lid on this girly treasure trove of stuffed animals, dolls, games, craft kits and jewelry she said, "Mom, I want to find someONE to give this to instead of just dropping it off somewhere."

We went about our rather ordinary Summer day. I dropped K off for a play date and went to retrieve my sons.

Around 2pm I received a text from a friend that serves as a foster parent with news that she had recently taken in a sibling group (two boys and a girl). She indicated that the children had arrived with very little and she was working on securing a few things to make them feel more at home--especially dolls and toys for the 6 year old girl.

I couldn't believe it! I excitedly informed her that we had a freshly packed container of great things that would be completely age and size appropriate. When I collected K from her friend's house we drove over to meet this sweet girl and deliver the goodies.

As the little girl opened the box and went through the items with K I was overwhelmed by God's provision for this sweet one. I saw the contents in a fresh way--through her eyes--and it looked like a 6 year old's Christmas wish...a doll with clothes, bottles, brushes and a stroller. Stuffed animals. A veterinary kit. Craft sets. Costume jewelry for dress up. A swimsuit and cover up. A church dress and play clothes. It suddenly didn't seem like donations, but instead like a suitcase that had been custom packed for this little one.

All the uncharacteristic interest in cleaning up had been for a much grander purpose.God had this child on His mind. What we considered a Summer chore was a way He was planning to shower love.

As we were leaving I couldn't help but point it out to our new friend. "Hey, do you know how much God loves you? He had us thinking of you before we had even met you. God had us pack up this container just for you!"

She smiled and I gulped as the implications in my own life sunk in. I looked over at my friend who had tears in her eyes too. 

When we drove away I reminded K not to miss the sweetness of this story. God loves US so much He let us be a small part of His big plan today. 

This is the way our God operates. He is thinking of us, loving us and putting us on other people's hearts even when we don't realize it. Even tonight I am shaking my head at the reminder of His Provision. 

I don't retell this story as a "look at me," but as a "Look at HIM!" God made a moment today that all of my well-intentioned orchestrating could not have crafted. He is woo-ing that sweet foster child, just as he is wooing my daughter, my friend and me...with undeniable reminders that He is weaving all our stories together. We must simply pay attention. 

Monday, July 21, 2014

This Mama's Mantra

In my ten years as a Mama, I have read (or skimmed) a lot of books and visited a lot of websites. I've talked with teachers, my husband and other parents hundreds of hours. I've begged God to redeem the holy mess I fear I am making with these precocious children.

Ironically, the more I read, talk, pray and experience the simpler my parenting philosophy becomes:

Show Up.

There is no book or formula that can address each specific circumstance. Even the Bible, so full of Truth doesn't directly speak to many of my in-the-moment issues--but it clearly speaks to my heart through the life of Jesus.

He prayed to stay in tune to the heart of His Father. He showed up for people when they needed Him. He loved with everything He had. Over and over and over again.

This is not just good parenting advice. It seems to work pretty well for marriage, friendships and simply being a good neighbor.

Best of all, the mantra is simple enough even a frazzled Mama can handle it: 
Show Up.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

This Yo-Yo Mama

My family spent this past week making memories galore at family camp in Colorado. We have been to this particular camp two previous times--when my trio was 4 and 6--but the level of autonomy they had this time, as ten year olds, made for a very different experience. 

While there were activities each day that we engaged in as a family, the safe surroundings allowed my kiddos so much freedom and independence that I found myself a little bored and missing them. I watched longingly as other parents wrangled their little ones who still sat in their laps and needed/wanted them constantly. I know if you are in this stage you think I am crazy :) I remember how exhausting it was. I really do. But, frankly, I am still trying to work my way through my role now that K, P & R don't need me as physically and as often as they once did.

Thursday afternoon my P bought an orange yo-yo. Although it should come as no surprise that my tactile tinkerer would want such a classic toy—I confess I was not particularly excited about his purchase. From the moment he proudly showed it to me I felt a sense of dread over the inevitable frustration it was likely to bring him. Cheap plastic toys rarely fare well in our family, but our efforts to teach money management involve budgeting and making choices, so I allowed the purchase despite my reservations. Natural consequences are certainly the best teacher--for kids and grown ups alike.

Later that night I looked across a room crowded full of people to see P on his knees, crying as he fought with a very tangled yo-yo string. After a few minutes he brought it to me, cupped in his hands. With frustrated tears still on his cheeks he said, “I just can’t fix this. Can you help me?”

I am his mother. I hate to see him sad. And frankly, something within me lit up and rejoiced in being needed by my boy. He had a mess that I could fix. So, I spent the next half hour fumbling with the thin white string. While I was able to make some progress, the knots ultimately were just too much for me.

I knew his father could handle it. Not only is he a former boy scout, but he deals with tiny knots and sutures constantly in the OR. This yo-yo string would be an easy fix in his capable hands, but this stubborn Mama kept fumbling--not ready to hand it over to the one who could repair it with ease. I made some progress, even returning it to a (basically) functional state--but it was not a complete fix. 

After a half hour, I reluctantly handed it off to my husband who was able to efficiently do what I was not—working out the tangled mess and returning the yo-yo to the way it was intended to be. 

I immediately realized that this was a part of my changing role as a tween Mom--to know when I am intended to help versus when I should merely be the conduit, pointing them to the One who can really heal their mess. This time it was their earthly father--increasingly it will be their Heavenly one. 

That night our camp speaker encouraged us to spend 15 minutes in the star-filled quiet Colorado night--just listening to anything the Lord might want to say to us. And all I could think about was that orange plastic yo-yo and what it revealed about my heart and my changing role.

I realized that I withheld what my child needed because I had a need I was trying to fill first. I wanted to be P's hero and savior. While I was more than capable of loving him and doing my best with that tangled mess--P needed more than me.

What a reminder that I can only parent from the healthiest place when my needs are being met by God first. It is essential that I stay plugged in to my relationship with the Lord to allow Him to reveal the messes in my own heart before I put them onto my children. I must also continue to ask God to show me in each particular situation with each particular child what role is mine and what is in fact His. 

Knotted strings at 10 become different sorts of tangled messes as we age and grow. While the early years were filled with moments of "Mommy can fix anything," increasingly my role will be to lovingly and faithfully help my children take these things to the Lord. 

I am so grateful for a God of grace who is untangling my pride like my husband handled that white yo-yo string.

I will never look at a yo-yo the same way again.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

The View from the Hill

"Get over your hill and see what you find there, with grace in your heart and flowers in your hair." -Mumford & Sons, After the Storm 

I am a few months away from rolling over the hill of 40--and I confess I am loving this stage of life. The view from the hill offers perspective. Small things fade away as the bigger picture emerges. As a lover of lessons and meaning, I'm relishing this season in which God is teaching me a lot about what really matters--and sifting out a lot of junk in my heart that is just sucking up life, space and energy that can be spent on other things. He is teaching me the beauty of letting go.

I am especially learning a great deal about forgiveness and grace. Much like Charles Dickens' ghosts of Christmas past, present and future, I have been dealing afresh with hurts from various seasons of my life. The last couple of months have brought me a precious, heartfelt apology from an old friend regarding a hurt that God had used time and perspective to completely heal. There has also been an overdue conversation about decades old family drama, a recognition that a deep regret of mine cannot be reconciled in this life--only forgiven and redeemed by God and a rebirth of a friendship that had been abandoned due to misunderstanding and shame. And perhaps most difficult, this has all been leading me to a slow change of heart about a more recent offense that has cost us a great deal.

As I have been walking through all of this I came across an amazing article about forgiveness and reconciliation that brought even more healing and perspective. It is a process. I am not there yet...but I am being reminded over and over again that making everything in this life a battle is exhausting, draining and unhealthy. 

Our VBS theme this week came from 1 Corinthians 13. I love the fresh take on familiar words from the Message translation.
"No matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love.
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.
Love never gives up.
Love never dies...understanding will reach its limit. We know only a portion of the truth, and what we say about God is always incomplete. But when the Complete arrives, our incompletes will be canceled.
... We don’t yet see things clearly. We’re squinting in a fog, peering through a mist. But it won’t be long before the weather clears and the sun shines bright! We’ll see it all then, see it all as clearly as God sees us, knowing him directly just as he knows us!
But for right now, until that completeness, we have three things to do to lead us toward that consummation: Trust steadily in God, hope unswervingly, love extravagantly. And the best of the three is love." 

We love not because people have earned it. 
Not because we feel like it. 
Not because we want to. 
Not because it's easy.
We love because He first loved us...and because it really is the best, most life giving way to live. 

Monday, July 07, 2014

A VBS Lesson For Me: Love is Patient

For three of the last four years I have been able to serve as the leader of a combined 4th-6th grade group at our church's annual Vacation Bible School. It is astounding that this age group now includes my own brood! It can be intimidating to teach a class my children are in, but they have repeatedly told me how much they enjoy it, so I suppose I ought to ride that wave until it crashes in the 'mortified by Mom' stage.

No doubt, three hours a day of 70 plus lively tweens wears me out, but it does so in all the best ways. Coming from an unchurched family, VBS holds a very special place in my own story. I love that God has allowed me to now teach the age group I was in when I felt Him draw me close three decades ago. It is a sweet time as I participate each year, remembering my own journey to faith.

I also marvel each Summer at the powerful truths that can come from boiling the Gospel story down to the basics. As a 'serious adult,' approaching the Scripture in a childlike way is refreshing! Of course, there is truly nothing like preparing to teach something to find yourself being taught. I was reviewing tomorrow's lesson about some of the characteristics of love--and my teacher's guide smacked me with a lesson more profound than any I've read recently in more 'respectable,' adult publications:

"Love in action is patient and kind. It behaves with humility that doesn't focus exclusively on personal agendas or achievements. Love expressed though patience is not so much about waiting as about being fully present where we are in the present moment. Living expectantly in the here and now reminds us that God has placed us in situations He designed for us. Ephesians 2:10 tells us, 'We are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.' Trusting God's design for every moment of our lives means we can practice love in every difficult situation. We can pray for those who tax our patience, trusting that God's love and kindness can prevail in every circumstance."
-from Gospel Light's SonTreasure Island VBS Preteen Teacher's Guide  

I have re-read this paragraph a dozen times, its profound simplicity seeping into my heart. I don't think I have ever considered this definition of patience in love...It is NOT waiting for someone or something to change, but trusting that is God has allowed the difficult moments with people in my life. They aren't an accident or a glitch, He has a purpose in them.

My role is not to 'equalize' or 'set straight' those who tax, offend, ignore or fail to respond the way I want them to...My task is humility, presence, expectancy and prayer.

In one breath I think: That's so hard!
In another I think: That's so freeing!
And the truth is, it is both.

Unclenching my fists,
Laying down my defensiveness,
Pausing from licking my wounds and protecting my pride,
Relinquishing control...
Those things are challenging when I am focused on me.

Having peace that the battle is not mine to fight,
Trusting in a plan far beyond my comprehension,
Being reminded of the forgiveness I have received,
Exhaling the bitterness and refocusing on grace.
This is freedom that is focused on Him.

This revelation won't exactly translate to my 9-12 year old audience tomorrow, but in the spirit of being fully present in this moment, I thank God that He gave it to me tonight.

Sunday, July 06, 2014

Adventures in Backyard Camping

The request came early yesterday. It happens once a Summer and I find myself mixed with a rush of both nostalgia and dread.

"Can we set up tents and camp in the yard?"

Of course, every parent knows what this really means: Can you and Dad set up our tents, watch us drag two dozen armloads full of inside stuff outside, and then wake up several times during the night as we get scared and come in one-by-one?

So much work for a generally predictable outcome. Of course, remembering the pursuits of our own childhoods and suckers for the excited chatter adventures like this bring, we said yes.

K & B spent the morning sweeping, mopping and scrubbing our neglected treehouse--making lists of the contents for the 'survival packs,' replacing batteries in flashlights and supervising my husband as he set up their mini tents. R & P were late entries to this adventure, but nonetheless chattered away as their Dad erected our family tent in the back yard and helped them situate their lanterns.

After filling their bellies with pizza and watermelon we enjoyed the last of our 4th of July fireworks, turned on every exterior flood light, zipped up every tent and turned to go inside and begin our wait for the inevitable. We hadn't even made it past the porch when a little voice said, "I think I am more of your sports guy than your outdoors/camping kid. I'd rather sleep in my bed." 10:02pm

About 15 minutes later I heard yelling and peeked out the upstairs window to see P standing in the floodlit yard, staring out into the darkness. "It's just our dogs, girls!"

Good for him, I thought, being a brave little sentry. I washed my face and settled into bed. Just as we were drifting off to sleep we heard the doorbell. "I keep hearing things and wondering if it is a robber coming to break in our house that will see our tents and decide to kidnap a kid or two instead." Another man down. 10:33pm

With the boys tucked snugly in their beds, we had high hopes for the girls. If nothing else, their excitement over the idea and exhaustion from an action packed day in the sun were in our corner. My next memory is being awakened from a deep sleep by the door chimes of our home alarm system. 12: 51am

As I came downstairs I spotted two little girls huddled together, holding hands as they crept through the sleeping house. As I got closer I realized my K was uncharacteristically sobbing.

"I. just. want. to. sleep. in. my. bed," she eeked out between gasps.
I rushed over and hugged her tight. "Of course. What happened, baby?"
"I got stuck in my tent," she sobbed, "The zipper wouldn't move. I couldn't get out. B. was asleep and couldn't hear me to help. It was like 20 minutes."

How terrifying! My heart hurt for her. Of all the worst case scenarios, being trapped in a tent hadn't even crossed my worried Mama mind.

I went back out with the girls to collect their stuffed animals and pillows. Climbing into a dark tree house in my pajamas after midnight made me giggle even in my middle of the night stupor. It only took a few minutes until they were safe and sound asleep indoors.

As I crawled back into bed & recapped with my husband he quipped, "We knew it would end like this. I almost told them no, but I just couldn't bring myself to break their spirits."
Even exhausted, I agreed.

This is the thing about intentional parenting: it isn't always convenient.

Although on the surface it appears this whole event was a bust, there were several little wins.
1. The children were able to enthusiastically pursue an idea that cost us nothing but a little sleep.
2. They pridefully spent hours cleaning, planning and working to make it happen.
3. The children were able to feel 'believed in.' (We kept our doubtful comments to ourselves.)
4. They were able to enjoy a sense of accomplishment--making it farther than they have in the past.

As I am writing this morning they are all still asleep, but no doubt much of today will be spent recounting their adventure--and cleaning up the mess. I get to check "backyard camping" off this Summer's list and look forward to next year.
Joy comes in looking for the wins mixed in with the 'losses.' Real life contains plenty of both. I know this is but a foretaste of future lessons in success and failure, but am grateful, at this age, they can happen in the relatively safe setting of my own floodlit backyard.

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Lessons from Cooking, Cookies and Love

When I was younger I loved to experiment in the kitchen. My parents were kindly enthusiastic over my juvenile concoctions like mustard filled balogna cups and barbque sauce covered noodles. (I have a whole new appreciation these days for this aspect of love.) I can still envision the baby blue tri-board from my award winning strawberry fluff for the 4H  "Dairy Food Demonstration" in elementary school. Blue ribbon in hand, I seemed well on my way to culinary achievement.

I am not certain what sidetracked my pursuits, but it seemed to coincide with the Burnt Flour Incident of 1984. Bad choices left me restricted to only a microwave for a while--and I found other passions. In the 30 years since then I've managed to survive on limited kitchen abilities--largely because of a lack of interest.

I have long viewed food as a necessary fuel, but not much more. Single until the age of 27, cooking for myself didn't seem worth the trouble. Married to a man who frequently came home after 9pm in the early years, then as an exhausted mother of triplets, efficiency trumped home cooked. Frankly, there are just other things I'd prefer to do and think about. As a person who values tidiness as a mental health need, the additional mess from cooking was the final straw.

Until recently.

With the proliferation of televisions in restaurants, and the craziness of extracurricular schedules, I have grown to love eating at home. As my husband's hours improve, children become increasingly independent and longer school days provide more time for me at home, I have slowly started spending more time thinking about (and planning) food.  My children's palates have expanded (a little bit). Two of the three show an interest in cooking with me. I have found myself drawn back into the kitchen. I am absolutely not starting a cooking blog anytime soon, but as old fashioned as it sounds, I have learned to love using my hands and my time to feed people.

Yesterday feeding a crowd shed new light on how this is all coming together in my heart and life. We spent the early afternoon at the pool within walking distance of my house. As World Cup kickoff time approached, my uber social R started gathering a gang for an impromptu 'watching party' at our house. By the time we walked back up the hill towards home I had seven spirited 9-10 year olds in tow.

As our young guests settled in for pre-game I realized I hadn't planned on them, but needed to feed them nonetheless. I scrambled and found a few offerings in my pantry--fancy stuff with unnatural shelf life--Doritos, Cheez-its, Popcorn. Thinking through the children gathered in my family room. I managed to meet the special needs of food allergies, braces and picky preferences. As I walked into the room bearing bowls of junk, they cheered. I felt valued.

Because I was the only adult present, I could sense I wasn't really 'needed' in front of the television. To stay within earshot of our little party, I adjourned to the kitchen and realized I had just enough time (and ingredients) to make from scratch chocolate chip cookies. I have typically been a slice and bake girl, but what else was I going to do while banished to the kitchen?

As the mixer churned there was a strange stirring in my own heart. A silly grin crossed my face as I realized I had officially joined the ranks of the stereotypical mothers through the ages who swell with pride at the ability to feed those who walk through their doors. As the boys drifted in one by one, drawn to the sweet aroma of fresh baked chocalatey goodness, I saw the softening of their demeanor. At halftime they literally ran into the kitchen and descended upon those cookies like locusts. For ten sweet minutes they told me of things their Moms and Grandmothers baked as crumbs periodically escaped their mouths. When the two dozen cookies were gone they dashed back into the family room leaving crumbly carnage that I truly found joy in cleaning up.

I was pondering it all last night--wondering what had shifted in my heart--and I came up with a few thoughts:

1. Feeding young people gives me a role beyond taxi driver and chaperone. I want my home to be a place where people feel welcomed and valued. Food is one of the most primal ways to do that, as it meets a need and a desire. Even knowing the allergies and aversions was a way of communicating: "You are known and valued here."

2. Food brings people together. Seven spirited 9-10 year old slowed down and gathered for conversation--all because of warm cookies. Need I say more?

3. Love is communicated many different ways. As my children age and I am required to give them a bit more space, food is one of the ways I can stay plugged in and love them in a way that's not 'embarrassing.'

And this morning as I was rolling all of this around in my brain I realized the lessons extend far beyond food. I thought about John 21 and Jesus' admonition to Simon Peter to "feed His sheep." I don't plan to walk around all day every day with a plate of cookies, but I have constant opportunities to nourish people's souls.

The recipe for doing so looks a lot like the list above:

1. Listening, seeking to know, and valuing others.
2. Looking for opportunities to bring people together around something they share in common.
3.Loving people in a way that is comfortable to them.

And like the cookie making it takes a little more work, it leaves a bit more of a mess--but the outcome is totally worth it.