Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Our Holy Land Experience: Bethlehem, Shepherds' Fields, Palestine

Our first destination Wednesday was Bethlehem, located in the disputed territories of Judea and Samaria (also known as the West Bank.) Influenced by our previous visit to a small village in Palestine and Christmas carols describing Bethlehem a "little town," I was surprised to find multi-story buildings and strong Western influences in this city of Jesus' birth.

Our large tour bus was parked on a city street and we walked up to the Church of the Nativity, a basilica built over the cave where it is believed Jesus was born. Yes, cave! One of the interesting things we learned is that Mary & Joseph most likely found lodging in a cave, not a wooden stable structure like we see so prevalently represented in modern Christmas. The prevalence of caves in this region makes this assertion much easier to imagine. These caves were the places many families (and shepherds) used for shelter of their animals at night. 

In order to enter the Church of the Nativity, patrons must bow down and walk through the Door of Humility. It is the only entrance and despite more practical historical explanations of the reason the door is so small, the act of going low in order to enter was not lost on me. 

Despite the simplicity outside, there is much activity (adornments, people, lines) inside. After waiting our turn, we were able to crouch down and touch the 14 point silver star that is placed over the Grotto of the Nativity--the place it is widely held that Jesus was born.

As we exited the place, I struggled with the fact that the very tourism that allowed us to visit this spot, has also made this once simple place so overdone. Next to elaborate ancient candelabra were modern heat lamps, and inside massive chandeliers were spiral shaped, energy efficient bulbs. The contrast really spoke to me about how humans can take the simple, holiest truths and overdress them with our excessive interventions.

After the church, our tour guide took us to the much more serene Shepherds Fields. Here he sought to explain the likely conditions of Jesus' birth in a much more contextual way. 

As we entered a real ancient cave (one of many) we were treated to a powerful lesson about shepherds. We also saw a stone manger that animals would have used to eat from while in the shelter of a cave. It was surreal to imagine a baby safely placed here to sleep.

After so much talk of 'ancient stones,' it was time to go and meet living stones. We drove a very short distance to a nearby resort to see Young Life ministry in action. This hotel is used to bring over 800 students and families to camp each year. We were greeted with camp-style welcome complete with drums, men in costume and smiling faces.

There is a large swimming pool with colorful water slides and even an astroturf field. As a striking reminder that life here is quite different than our own, high fences stood along the property edge separating this place from a Jewish settlement on the other side.

In addition to our group, there were 20-30 people from a state run orphanage for children who had been abandoned by their families due to special needs. As we played games, danced, sang and enjoyed lunch together I was moved to tears repeatedly. THIS is exactly the kind of place where Jesus would be with the most marginalized of the a Middle Eastern village surrounded by orphans with special needs and their caretakers. There were even physical fences surrounding us as a reminder. By many accounts these people were not good for much in the world--and yet these are exactly who He tells us to love. What a humbling privilege!

I will never forget this day!

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Our Holy Land Experience: Old Jerusalem, Gethsemane, Holocaust Museum, Western Wall

Tuesday morning we explored the Old City of Jerusalem, a relatively small area that houses much history, culture and significance within its ancient walls. First, we visited the Christian Quarter (home to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre).

When we arrived at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre the prominently displayed presence of a bomb disposal container was a reminder that we were indeed in a land that has seen countless violent threats for generations. 

While in the Christian Quarter we were also able to go inside the area where many families live. Our tour guide was raised in this environment and was able to deftly navigate the alleys and corridors to take us 'behind the scenes' where children's toys were scattered and clothing was on the line--life amidst the historical stones.

As we entered the Muslim Quarter there was an energy shift. It was full of people and markets overflowing with rich colors and smells. We sampled delicious olives--and candy!
From Old Jerusalem, we traveled a short distance to the Garden of Gethsemane. Here we learned that the name Gethsemane is derived from the words for "olive press." as out tour guide Andre pointed out "when we are pressed, we pray." 

I had been warned the small size of this garden would surprise me. What I did not expect was the overt tourism on display as crowds encircled this small fenced in plot. As dozens and their tour guides bustled around the lot as if it were an exhibit on display, it was difficult to find prayerful stillness. It was a stark contrast to the peaceful, lush, quiet, personal place of reflection I had envisioned. However, we were delighted to find that just across the street was a private section surrounded by stone walls, available for entrance and reflection. Our group gained admittance and was able to have a short service of praise and worship before scattering around the garden to pray in this serene place. 
While the olive trees we sat under and against are not 2000 years old, they have been carbon dated as some of the oldest ever discovered--over 1000 years old! They are likely descendants of the shoots of the original trees that grew in this area. 

My personal faith doesn't lead me to conclude anything magical happened simply by praying in this place. Nevertheless, it was powerful to envelop myself in the sights, sounds, and context of Jesus' prayer vigil here before he was handed over to the authorities for crucifixion. I was challenged anew to consider the depth of His surrender and the eternal implications (and daily call) in my own life and I was truly filled with purposeful peace.

Our afternoon consisted of a solemn visit to the Holocaust Museum. We discovered after we exited that the age restriction for the museum was 16 years and up--but the kids handled it with remarkable maturity. My husband wisely paced our one hour visit so that the first 50 minutes were spent understanding the build up/causes of the Holocaust. We rushed through the graphic portions of the exhibits, but lingered in sections that focused on the survivor stories. We solemnly attempted to absorb this horrible period in World History. Although we came to the Holy Land to see the places, God continued to remind me of all we could learn from its people.

We returned the Jewish Quarter at night to explore the underground tunnels and pray at the Western Wall. Perhaps it was because of the lights on the wall against the darkness and the prominent Israeli flag--but standing in the prayer plaza was a surreal experience. 

Women did not have to cover their heads, but men did. Apparently, any head covering will do, so while Parker and big Ryland had to don yarmulkes RyGuy's Northface baseball camp was deemed perfectly acceptable.
There was a divider in the prayer plaza that sorted women to the right and men to the left--as the two genders were not permitted to pray together at the wall. Kate and I entered the women's area clutching small slips of paper with our prayer requests to leave there between the stones. 

As we took our turn praying here, the spot believed to be the closest one can get to the Temple Mount, we were surrounded by devoutly religious people experiencing the Wall in different, demonstrative ways. As many around us rocked, cried, prayed and covered their faces with holy texts, I felt a bit uncertain. I looked over at Kate who seemed to be having the same uneasiness. As we walked away I realized it was because I didn't feel I had to travel across the world to a stone wall to feel like the Lord heard more prayers. I rejoiced that Jesus tore down the wall between us and God so we can speak to Him with the same intimacy in our bathroom shower in Georgia as at this historical place. 

After a 13 hour day of touring, we returned to our hotel this night with MUCH to process!

Friday, March 17, 2017

Our Holy Land Experience: West Bank, Palestine and Jacob's Well

Monday we left our hotel in Tiberius and journeyed to the West Bank of Palestine. I confess prior to this trip, my preconceived notions about Palestinians was almost entirely based on the media images of angry young men with headscarfs shouting and tossing objects in protest to the boundary lines with Israel.

As we journeyed through the checkpoint (which was a non-event in our tour bus) the reality of the landscape was quite different than I expected.

We were scheduled to visit a group of Palestinian Christians in a small village, so our drive took us through a very agrarian area. Rolling green hills were dotted with crops of strawberries and shepherds tending their flocks.

Palestine did seem much simpler, like a step back in time, cut off from many of the modern advances in infrastructure.
The people who greeted us (both planned and those we encountered as we walked through the village) were kind and welcoming. We had to quickly switch gears from the Hebrew words and phrases we were using in Israel to Arabic words and phrases in this area, especially when one of my children had an urgent need for a bathroom.

A local family hosted our entire group of 26 on the porch of their modest home for coffee and conversation about their lives. The women and college students spoke to us about the challenges of being a Christian in Palestine-- they are minorities--making up only 1-2% of the population. Their joy and courage were palpable and left quite an impression upon me.

Our time together concluded with a delicious lunch and a fresh perspective on the subsets of real people behind sweeping headlines and assumptions. One of the challenges our tour guide, Andre, had issued at the beginning of our journey was to experience not just the ancient stones of the Middle East, but the 'living stones' as well. I felt as if this day had been a powerful experience in that regard.

Our next stop was Jacob's Well (within the walls of an Eastern Orthodox monastery).  It is believed to be the place where Jesus encountered the Samaritan Woman at the well. (See John 4.)

Photos were not allowed inside, but I borrowed this one from google images for context. The well is still functioning after all these years! We were able to lower the pail and retrieve water--135 feet down. Outside we met these boys selling olive oil soaps to the Westerners in the big tour bus for "one dolla, one dolla."

From here we traveled to Mount Zion, where we would spend the next three nights with a glorious view of Jerusalem. 
Shalom indeed. 

Our Holy Land Experience: Sea of Galilee, Mt of Beatitudes, Capernaum, Jordan River

Sunday we awoke to another gorgeous clear day--perfect for taking to the water! To our delight, our group embarked on a morning boat ride across the peaceful Sea of Galilee.
Our hosts demonstrated the casting of nets and explained the fishing culture in Jesus' day. We also learned a few traditional Jewish dances and fed seagulls before returning to land for a tour of the ancient boat museum.

This is the preserved remnant of a 2,000 year old boat found buried on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. Astounding to imagine Jesus asleep on a similar boat as a sudden and frightening storm blew in. The Bible was steadily moving from black and white words on a page to living color.

From the Sea of Galilee, we journeyed up to the Mount of Beatitudes where Jesus gave the Sermon on the Mount.
So much of the Holy Land experience lies in getting context and perspective on the terrain/parts of the landscape and culture that influenced the teachings of Jesus. There were distinct bright yellow flowering plants covering many fields. What a delight to discover they were mustard!

The ground on the Mount of Beatitudes? A mixture of rocky and fertile. It was easy to imagine people gathered around in these very places as Jesus taught, surrounded by the object lessons He was using the instruct them. He spoke directly into their daily life in a way they could understand.

Our next stop was the city of Capernaum, where much of Jesus' public ministry took place. The rubble of many of the old buildings remains--including the synagogue. It was fascinating to think of Jesus in this environment. This day also impressed upon us how close in proximity many of the events of Jesus' life took place (walking distance!)

Our final stop of the day was the Jordan River. I was a bit leery of this place because the mix of tourism and sacred sacrament was a bit odd. Upon arrival, you rent towels and robes for $10 each and there are dozens of people there to be baptized.

Once we made it through the more commercial dressing room/rental portion, however, I was pleasantly surprised at how serene and special the environment became. We gathered as a group on large stone stairs on the riverbank that formed a sort of amphitheater. Those planning to be baptized gathered right along the river. One of our trip leaders said a few words and we sang a song. In God's impeccable attention to detail, the chorus we sang was the one song I knew as a child--a song I would sing when I was fearful and longing to feel close to God.

"I love you, Lord, and I lift my voice to worship You. Oh my soul, rejoice. Take joy, my King, in what you hear. May it be a sweet, sweet sound in your ear."

It was a very person God-wink from a loving Father. A peace settled over me and I knew this moment--all five of us being baptized together as a family was something I would never forget.

Ryland was baptized first, then he stayed in the river to assist in the baptism of the rest of us. The child each answered three questions, publicly professing their faith and then were immersed in the FREEZING cold water. I went last and it wasn't until I walked back up those stairs, dripping and shivering that the redemptiveness of the afternoon started to settle in.
My first baptism was in August of 1987. I was a child a couple of months shy of 13--the exact current age of my children! I was from a family that did not attend church and so the decision felt like a declaration of independence in many ways. I made my profession of faith with no family members present and only one of my parents was present the night of the baptism.

The fact that God gave me a second opportunity to be baptized, not only in the presence of my whole family unit but beside them healed something I didn't even fully realize was broken. And the fact that my husband was leading our family in such a symbolic way? I am still overwhelmed. 

This day was full of examples of what a personal God we serve. Jesus sought regular, unremarkable people in their ordinary lives. From casting nets to calming storms--to teaching in parables that explained the Gospel in a straightforward, uncomplicated manner. He knew needs they didn't even recognize and He spoke to them specifically in ways that would resonate in the pain, fear, and reality of their lives. My afternoon experience in the icy waters of the Jordan reminded me that He still operates this way today.

What an unforgettable day of personal redemption and restoration! (And hard to comprehend that we still had 6 days left in the journey.)

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Our Holy Land Experience: Nazareth

Saturday morning as sunlight peeked around the edges of our heavy hotel room curtains, I couldn't wait to get my first day time view of Israel. I gasped as I looked out--the Sea of Galilee. I dressed quickly and as the rest of our crew slept, I dashed down to take in the early morning calm.

Peaceful and spotted by fishing boats, this large lake offered the first of many moments during the week when stories from the Bible came alive. Seagulls provided background music as I looked around and considered how much of Jesus' recorded life and ministry took place on these shores.

After breakfast our crew traveled by bus the short distance (18 miles) from Tiberius to Nazareth.

Our first stop was the Nazareth Baptist School. In Israel high school students go to class 6 days a week! We spent several minutes in the courtyard while the students were enjoying the sunshine and fresh air of a break. Watching them interact and play volleyball in their hi-top sneakers was a reminder of how alike we all are despite our language and geographical barriers.

We enjoyed an introduction to some of the Young Life staff and an informative overview of the religious climate in Israel. Did you know that only 2% of the population in Israel & Palestine is Christian?

As we started to learn about the divisive and territorial history of the region, we were challenged by Ephesians 2:14

The Messiah has made things up between us so that we’re now together on this, both non-Jewish outsiders and Jewish insiders. He tore down the wall we used to keep each other at a distance.  (MSG translation)

Our next stop required us to don our trusty headsets and embrace our inner tourist.
Nazareth Village is an interactive opportunity to experience life in Jesus' times. We walked through a working replica village, asking questions of the shepherds, the seamstress and the carpenter. There were live sheep, donkeys, and a working ancient olive press. Ceramic oil lamps were used and over a delicious, authentic 1st century Middle Eastern lunch we got a taste of life as Jesus would have lived.

After such a charming view of 1st century life, our next stop was Mount Precipice. This is the traditional site where an angry mob from Nazareth attempted to throw Jesus off a cliff. (See Luke 4: 16-30) It was a remarkably clear day, which allowed us to look out over the Jezreel Valley and appreciate the terrain. The rich, green plains truly reflected the term "Promised Land."

The Jezreel Valley has been the site of many epic battles throughout history and is believed to be the place where the last world war (Revelation 16) will occur.

From this spot we prayed for the surrounding nations--that they would find peace--and then we journeyed back to Nazareth for a Young Life Club with Israeli students. Much like the states, club was held in a family home's downstairs basement. Laughter, music and kindness cross all cultures!

It seemed fitting that our day started and ended with young people from the region--with context for Jesus' early life in between. A good, slow paced day that set the stage for a very busy week.

Our Holy Land Experience: Getting There

My family had the extraordinary opportunity to travel to the Holy Land earlier this month for Spring Break. As we traveled I posted highlight photos and captions on Instagram, but as I have returned home and attempted to process all we experienced, I felt led to write a few posts elaborating a bit more on the sites, people and lessons as we recall them.

I explained a bit about this in my previous post, but even how this trip came to be felt ordained. My husband & I share a love for foreign travel and our children are in a sweet spot age at almost-13. All three are interested in geography, history, adventure and culture. The food can be a bit of a challenge for 2/3 of the trio, but it just adds to the growth opportunities! ;-)

The first week of March is a strange time for worldwide travel weather-wise, so as we walked through our travel bucket list (Galapagos, Machu Picchu, Africa and Australia are the current dream top 4) the timing/budget didn't quite seem to fit. We researched several other destinations before starting to seriously consider the UAE. It was totally different than anywhere else we've traveled, relatively safe and would take us to continent we had yet to explore. We had just gotten comfortable with the idea of traveling to the Middle East when our monthly Young Life magazine arrived. As I was flipping through it I noticed an advertisement for a trip to the Holy Land for alumni and supporters of the ministry. The dates were the same as our break. There were no age restrictions listed on the trip, so I reached out to the organizer to see if she felt the trip would be appropriate for K, P & R. She consulted with the lead tour guide and with their blessing we placed our deposit and got excited.

On the day of departure, we picked the children up at school at 2pm and journeyed to Atlanta for our 6pm flight. Upon check-in we were informed there were problems with our tickets causing a nerve-wracking 50 minute delay as we were completely rebooked. I am not a superstitious person, but this obstacle did make me momentarily question if we were meant to go. Then, as we arrived at the boarding gate there was yet another problem which delayed our boarding--and induced a bit of anxiety. Once all was cleared up and we were on board, peace prevailed. There was honestly not one other fearful moment in the next 9 days of Middle Eastern travel.

Our itinerary included a two hour flight to NYC where we changed planes and had to completely clear security all over again. By 11pm we were on board our 11 hour flight to Tel Aviv. Sleeping on a plane is ridiculously uncomfortable, but with sleeping masks and a little Melatonin we did our best.

Our flight arrived in Tel Aviv at 4pm local time on Friday. After collecting all our bags we gathered at a coffee shop in the airport with the 20 other people--then complete strangers--with whom we would be journeying for the next week.

It was a lively Young Life crowd. Our triplets were the youngest by far. We were joined by three people in their 20s (all traveling with their parents), 4 Young Life staff people from around the country, 3 single women and a handful of couples ranging in age from 40s-70s. Our tour guide, Andre, was there to greet us with the plush tour bus that would become our classroom. Once the luggage was loaded and introductions had been handled, we traveled two hours to Tiberius for our first hotel stay. 24 hours from door to door, but we had made it!

It was dark upon arrival and overcoming jetleg was goal #1. We were urged to stay awake until at least 9pm local time to reset our body clocks. We were given 30 minutes to settle into our rooms, freshen up and return to the hotel dining room for a huge Shabbat (Sabbath) dinner. In Israel, the Sabbath runs from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday--and the observance permeates society. There are Sabbath settings on the elevators that make them stop on every floor so no one will need to do the 'work' of pushing buttons. I noticed in the hotel room our AC thermostat even had a Sabbath setting. The roads are almost abandoned and the stores are closed.

The hotel dining room was bustling as we found our reserved tables--clearly the travel weary Americans among the devout Israeli Jews. As if our appearance didn't make our differences clear, the signs on our tables certainly did!

 After a filling dinner and a quick group meeting we went to bed--a bumpy first night of sleeping in fits and starts as our bodies adjusted to the 7 hour time difference...but, oh what a view welcomed us when we awoke Saturday morning.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

A Ram in the Thicket

Several months ago as we pondered how to spend our Spring Break, we felt an urge for grand adventure—something outside the norm. We explored several options on our travel bucket list and did not find peace. After hours of inconclusive research, we opened up our Young Life magazine and saw an advertisement for a trip to the Holy Land scheduled during the exact week of our Spring Break. 

We had been contemplating a rite of passage for our almost-13-year-olds and this trip seemed divinely appointed. It departed 12 days after Kate, Ryland & Parker’s church confirmation and included a chance to be baptized in the Jordan River. 

Our family of five joined a group of 25 alumni and friends of Young Life, led by a Spirit-filled Palestinian Christian for a remarkable nine-day journey through the Holy Land. I’m not generally a fan of group travel, but this crew was divinely knit together and formed a remarkable sense of community in a short time. In addition to the dozens of historical and holy sites on our journey, we were exposed to 'living stones' throughout the Middle East as we had encounters with the real people behind the scary headlines--Messianic Jews, Muslims, devout Jews, Palestinian Christians, nomadic Bedouins...

I hope to detail many of our experiences later. (I documented many of the locations on my Instagram account if you want to see daily pictures and recaps.) 

The most immediately life changing experience for me, however, occurred while praying in a private section of the Garden of Gethsemane last Tuesday. I was overwhelmed by the reality of how completely Jesus surrendered His life there--and what His heart must have felt as He spoke to His Father about the assignment He'd been given. We sang a few songs as a group, then split up to pray. I could not shake a portion of “Mighty to Save” and journaled its words as my prayer: “Take me as you find me. All my fears and failures. Fill my life again. I give my life to follow everything I believe in. Lord, I surrender. I surrender.”

Under these lyrics I scratched out a verse that came to mind...“The Spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.” 

Later that day I got an email from a strong but struggling, single Mama I have known for a couple of years. She asked me to pray for a court hearing Wednesday regarding her ability to regain custody of her children who have been staying with a family member for a few months. I asked my family and a few others on our trip to join me in praying. 

When I texted her to see how it went, she replied the family member was unable to continue caring for the boys and they were being placed in foster care. This is particularly upsetting because in our town the shortage of foster families means 80% of kids in care get sent to other parts of the state, severing their community attachments, starting new schools and pulling them farther away from their families and case workers (which complicates reunification.)

A few weeks ago, Ryland & I mutually felt our time of sabbatical and recuperation from our last long term foster placement was coming to a close. We were feeling a call to open our home back up. After conversations with our kids, discussing what we had learned from previous placements, we agreed to some parameters as a family—only one child, out of diapers but younger than 10. (And, preferably, a boy ;-).  A couple of days before we left for the Middle East I called our case worker to let her know we were "turning on the vacancy light" when we returned. 

Upon hearing the news of my friend’s children, Ryland and I both had a sense that we should make ourselves available. As is so often true in life, this was NOT what we planned, it didn't meet our reasonable and well-thought through parameters, but the sense that God had put this woman and her children in our lives “for such a time as this” was undeniable. 

Because we were 7 hours ahead, we had some time to ponder. Our day’s agenda started with Communion in the Garden Tomb, a location many believe to be the site of Jesus Crucifixion and Resurrection. As we observed this holy sacrament in this sacred place, our need to be willingly broken became clear. If we believe what we say we do, our lives are not meant for ourselves, but to be shared. With bated breath and peaceful resignation, we sent an e-mail to offer ourselves as a placement option for the boys. We explained that we were out of the country for a few more days, but could be available upon return if needed. 

It was 3am EST so we waited and prayed—wondering if God really wanted us to take this on. We discussed Abraham being called to take Isaac up to Moriah for sacrifice--and it felt in many ways this was what God was calling us to do--to be willing to offer our comfortable family life to Him. We did not know His ultimate plan, but knew in our core we needed to respond in obedience with hearts that trusted Him. The fact that we were IN Jerusalem (built on Mt Moriah) as all this was unfolding was truly unbelievable. It was in God's hands.

As dawn approached at home, it was afternoon in Israel. We arrived at the Dead Sea, 1,338 feet below sea level, literally the lowest place on Earth. We pondered the beauty and symbolism of this being the place on Earth He chose to come. As we met that night to process what we were learning, looking out over the very salty Dead Sea, God drew me to Matthew 5 in The Message.

13a “Let me tell you why you are here. You’re here to be salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavors of this earth...

14, 16“Here’s another way to put it: You’re here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world... If I make you light-bearers, you don’t think I’m going to hide you under a bucket, do you? I’m putting you on a light stand. Now that I’ve put you there on a hilltop, on a light stand—shine! Keep open house; be generous with your lives..."

That night as we were preparing for bed, we received a call from our agency caseworker informing us the placement had been accepted and we would be receiving these two little boys Monday.

My mind immediately scrambled to the practical needs. I sent out an email to friends asking for help locating all the gear a 22-month-old would require: car seat, high chair, stroller, sippy cups, crib... We were returning changed from our trip--and to a changed life. 

After 24 hours of travel, we returned home Sunday afternoon to a porch full of gear. We disassembled a bed, moved in and assembled a crib, baby proofed our tween-friendly home, made multiple trips to Wal-Mart, installed car seats, stocked up on toddler-friendly food and got accustomed to the idea of two new little ones joining our family. Despite the busyness a peace that surpassed my understanding pervaded, as we KNEW in our core God was driving this situation.   

Monday morning, jetlag had me up before 5am completing our task list, unpacking bags and preparing to receive. We did not know what time the boys would come, so we stayed close to home all day. Around 4pm I received word that the case was being re-evaluated. Finally, at 5:15pm we got a call. In a complete plot twist, it had been decided that the boys were staying with the family member after all. Resources had been identified to enable the current relative to keep them--a blessing for the boys' sense of security. And, honestly, once I got over the 'wasted' time of preparation I exhaled a sigh of relief. Oh, the emotional whiplash of foster care!

And then, I remembered the image of a ram in a thicket. Just like the Genesis 22 story...God wanted obedience and trust to trump our plans. This time, it wasn't about the actual placement, it was about the posture of our hearts. The preparation time had not been wasted at all--it had simply been for a different purpose than I assumed.

Today, as I ponder it all I realize what a powerful and life-changing lesson God was teaching us. I am reminded of the ease with which we could fix our eyes on Him when we were in the Holy Land--free of distractions and in the presence of so much evidence to support our faith. I am exceedingly grateful for this object lesson God gave us to walk through with our children. 

I spent this morning returning borrowed items, but the crib is still in the room just in case. Our vacancy light is back on should a child (preferably not in diapers ;-) need a soft place to land--and I pray the lessons learned from this scenario are ingrained in our hearts. 

Our Sovereign God is on the throne, He is always up to more than one thing and He is worthy of our faith and trust. And the verse hanging on our guest room wall remains as true as ever: 

"For I KNOW the plans I have for you..." Jeremiah 29:11

Wednesday, February 08, 2017

My Facebook Break-Up

Six weeks ago I had a 24 hour bug--nothing serious, just the kind of viral illness that makes you feel lethargic and causes your head hurt when you move. It was a cold late December day so I sat on the sofa in front of the fire and surfed television and the Internet all day. I gorged on media until I was overstuffed.

All that free time with my face in a screen had led me down all sorts of rabbit trails "checking on" people on the fringes of my real everyday life--estranged family, friends I have fallen out of touch with, young women from hard places I have mentored in the past. I peeked into the tinted window of their lives social media allowed and was left feeling sick. I was deeply concerned by some of the struggles I saw in their pictures and posts, but recognized much of that was based on assumptions and filling in gaps between what they said and what I interpreted. I had a handful of people I wanted to reach out to and try to re-engage, but couldn't decide if peeking in their windows gave me a right to be heard.  I felt frustrated and empty.

I woke up the next morning with what I can only describe as a social media hangover. Never had the truth that social media is not the same as real life two-way, person-to-person relationships been more clear to me. I realized I was spending lots of time "peeking in" on people that could have been used to truly enter in with people God had put in my everyday real life.

In one overwhelming moment of clarity, I knew it was time to deactivate my Facebook account. I didn't think it through, I simply obeyed the fire in my belly--knowing deactivation doesn't have to be forever. When and if I feel led to go back, all my info, years of posts and accumulated contacts will still be there. I kept my messenger account so I can still reach out to folks whose contact info I do not otherwise have saved in my phone. It felt scary but right.

I am absolutely NOT a Facebook hater. Frankly, for years I defended it to my friends who had previously defected. I truly felt called there to be salt and light--to post blog entries, uplifting articles, and self-deprecating humor. It was a ministry of sorts. But in the same way I felt a sense of purpose in staying, I suddenly felt peace and freedom in leaving.

I haven't left every Instagram (photos) and Twitter (articles) activity is still high. I don't know that my Facebook departure is forever. But for this season it is a very good thing. God has used the break to teach me a lot.

When I have the urge to "check on" people or connect, I text, e-mail, message or call the person...often with a simple, "Have you on my heart," "praying for you," or direct question like, "how are you?" The response is all the confirmation I need that humans long for personal, meaningful offline connection.

When I read something that moves me I try to text or email it to the specific people God leads me to share it with--or blanket ones go on twitter. :-) This, too, has caused me to pause and remember the specific issues real people in my life are walking through. My relationships while fewer, are so much richer.

And all these difficult, hotly debated political issues...those conversations are so much more productive, informative and helpful over coffee, a Bible or a meal. Seriously.

Honestly, I've re-activated my account a handful of times--and on each occasion, it has lasted less than 5 minutes. It is as if my relational tastebuds have changed. I am hungry now for fewer surface announcements and headlines and more meaningful, personal contact with people seeking to understand and be understood. 

Yesterday, I listened to a wonderful talk Jill Briscoe delivered at If Gathering and it seemed to reiterate the same message. 

"The place between your own two feet at any given time, that's your mission field." -Jill Briscoe

This is the call. Stop scanning for the next best thing. Look right here in front of you. The place where God has planted your two feet is your ministry. We are to be present here--with THESE people--the ones in your home, workplace, grocery store, church, neighborhood, city, the ones whose paths He has sovereignly ordained to intersect your yours. 

"Go where you are sent. Stay where you are put. Give what you've got until you are done." -Jill Briscoe

Maybe in your season and station, social media is a part of your call. Maybe it isn't. But as for me, I am Facebook free and it is very good.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Notes from the Field (Observations of a Middle School Mama)

I have never had the desire to go skydiving, but I have done my share of adventure ropes courses. Part of the thrill of these types of activities is the fear. You know you are participating in something dangerous--and even though all sorts of protection is worn and utilized there is the realization that from time to time there are still terrible outcomes.

Engaging the various obstacles is challenging--and the feeling you have as you complete each implement is a mixture of accomplishment that you made it through and dread at what the next task will involve. I think this is an adequate metaphor for my current status as middle school Mom.

My children returned to school last week to their second semester of 6th. How in the world can it be that I will have three teenagers in 4 months?

It is hard for most people to even say "middle school" or "teenagers" without groans. I'm reading everything I can get my hands on about the developmental stage we are entering. I know to brace myself for the turbulence on the horizon. I have three preteens who are growing and changing emotionally, physically, spiritually and intellectually. I am under no illusions that this will be clean and smooth. I know there will be bumps and bruises as we go through this awkward phase--and that to try and protect against that would be depriving us all of the growth, change and maturity that is necessary.

But, right now? Right here? Life is good. I love experiencing my people at this age. I mean REALLY, truly. I am enjoying almost every minute.

As a mama who goes through each age/stage/grade three different ways with three different people at the same time, I have always strived to savor the present. This often involves choosing to accept the annoying parts of a stage in order to focus on what is good and rich.

I don't get most of the middle school humor. I am not interested in becoming a Pokemon expert. Bottle flipping drives me crazy. We have a long way to go with hygiene, manners and self control, but we are in a good place.

None of my three are active on social media yet. Crushes aren't a thing. Skin is still clear. Friends are not yet eating each other alive. Emotions and attitudes are mostly in check and when they are not, we talk about it. Conversation lines are open--and they are rapid fire doozies!

Over meals and during car rides we are having talks that are so rich, so real and so very important. Just this week, gender identity, racism, hormones, euthanasia, depression/suicide, politics and evolution. Whew!! Here's the thing: I am so glad we are discussing all this. Yes, the pressure is on in car rides to make sure I am ready for any conversation that may unfold, but I want to be the source they are coming to about these issues. Blowing these subjects off or covering them up because I am uncomfortable will simply send a message to my children to get their questions answered elsewhere. I don't know all the answers and I tell them so when I think I need a timeout to collect my thoughts. But, honestly, the talks we are having are my favorite part of being their Mama.

So, to the Mamas coming behind me this is my advice from what I am seeing here in the beginning trenches: Fear Not, but pray up! I wasn't sure how I was supposed to use my downtime now that my children are increasingly independent, but I can now see it is for reading, equipping, consulting with older Godly Mamas, alignment with my husband and recuperation so that in the time we do have together in the mornings, evenings and weekends I can be physically and emotionally present and ready for whatever is fired my way.

It is important to set aside your own anxieties about this age and stage. Confess it to God, pray through it, get support, but don't transfer it onto your kids. I am noticing that for many of the most anxious mamas these things become self-fulfilling. Their anxiety/fears/wounds from their own adolescences can unwittingly set their kids off on that course. Let your tweens start to stretch their wings in semi-controlled ways, then show up and coach them on the playing fields they are choosing.

At the end of every quality high ropes course is a free fall drop or swing of some sort. The moment before you pull the release or step off the edge are the height of fear. You must look down and realize what is about to happen. I feel as if this is where I stand in parenting. I know the days are coming where we all step off and trust that our Heavenly Father's protections are going to hold--but there will still be a jolt.

Last week I had to circle back with my children on a conversation I felt like I had flubbed. As I brought it back up I said, "I feel like I might have messed that conversation up because I was nervous and scared. You know, you haven't ever been 12 year olds before and I just started parenting kids this age. With God's help, we can do this. We won't be perfect, but if we keep talking we can help each other through it."

The smiles on all three faces were all the affirmation I needed that authentic conversation, patience and love and going to be powerful tools as we navigate these waters.

These are the days...