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Archive for the ‘Friendship’ Category

The past year has given me more opportunity to consider what I need in my life to thrive. For so long, it was just about survival and getting through the day; anything more seemed like a luxury or too far out of reach.

As our family has moved into our first full summer in our new community, I’ve had time to think about, and experience, those elements I need to be the best me.

Have you ever thought about that?

If not, I totally understand that sometimes there isn’t time or energy to do more than survive. But if you can, try to think about the things that give you life and make you a better person no matter what else you’re doing.

Here are five (and a half) things I’ve discovered I need to thrive:

1. Access to nature. I grew up in a house that was nothing special structurally but it had a creek in the backyard with a towering weeping willow tree and a screened in back porch and some days I loved nothing more than to cross the creek and curl up underneath the willow tree and listen to the creek gurgle. My hometown had a river flowing through it and parks aplenty and even when I was working a full-time job, I still sought out nature to center me and give me space to breathe. Some days, it’s harder to find, but the colors and sounds and fragrance of the natural world refresh my soul. I’ve yet to find a favorite spot in our new community, but that doesn’t stop me from trying. windchime

1.5 In the same way nature refreshes me, so does beauty. I used to spurn beautiful things as unnecessary. I’m a practical, task-oriented girl who likes things to have purpose and meaning. Until recently, I didn’t know the purpose of surrounding yourself with beauty, and maybe I still can’t explain it but finding the beauty in our ordinary days feels like a quiet revolution. A protest against the ugly and the evil and the mundane. It’s one of the reasons I drive the back roads whenever I can, to discover what’s just off the path everyone else is treading. My in-laws bought me this wind chime for my birthday, and I wish I could describe the calming effect its song has on me. Is it functional? Not in the way I would normally think, but its sound is a song I have to tune my ear to hear above the noise of the everyday.

2. Planned solitude. Last week I had most of a day to myself. I drove back roads with the windows down, went to a library, chatted with a friend, spent a little time writing. The day was mostly quiet and uneventful but it was exactly what I needed in the midst of my busy-with-kids life. Sometimes it feels selfish to get away from it all and be alone, but it restored something inside of me and equipped to face the rest of the days ahead. I’m not sure yet how often I need this, but I need it more often than I’ve had it.

3. Participation in creative work. I do love to write and that is creative but occasionally I need to color a page with my kids or paint a piece of furniture or dabble in an artistic project that I normally wouldn’t. (I’m contemplating a couple while the kids are away next week.) I haven’t played my guitar in almost a year. That’s too long. I can appreciate beauty, but sometimes I need to be part of its creation.

4. Friends. I’m an introvert, and yes, I enjoy solitude, but if the last year has taught me anything it’s how much I need friends. For years, I was lacking, surviving on a few really great friendships. And then the floodgates opened and I have friends in abundance, which is often overwhelming because I like to invest in people but only have so much to give. I’ve had the opportunity over the past months to deepen a writing friendship that transcends our mutual talent, and when I think about the last year and all the people who have loved us despite knowing our history and not having any blood relation to us, I almost cry. I’ve taken friendships for granted in the past, and I will still cultivate them poorly, but oh, how I need friends.

5. Books. (And time to read them.) My love for books is  becoming almost legendary on Facebook. It’s almost as well-known as my love for coffee. But I’m sure I could survive and even thrive in this life without coffee. I could not without books. On a deserted island, I think I’d rather have books than food. We fill our house with books and when books arrive in the mail I am giddy for days. And when I read a book that wows me, I almost walk around dazed until its effect wears off. (And sometimes the effect doesn’t wear off.)

I could keep going, I think, but these are the basics. If I have these five (and a half) things in my life, I will be more of who I am meant to be.

What about you? What gives you life and keeps you going and makes you more of your truer self?

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Phil and I have been married seven years today. The passing of a year whether an anniversary, birthday or the annual turning of the calendar makes me reflective. I had intended to write a post today about marriage and the “secret” to having a happy one (with the caveat, of course, that we have no idea because ours has had more ups and downs than a roller coaster).

But after a month of relationship sermons at our church and a discussion yesterday on singleness, I have other thoughts requiring a voice. I am fired up about single people, and if that’s you, I have a message for you. If it’s not you, I have a message for you, too. Because whether single or married, we have done singleness a disservice.

First, some background.

I had one boyfriend in college before a stretch of several years of singleness until I met my husband. Well, before I knew he would be my husband, anyway. From the time I was 19 until he and I started dating seven years later, I enjoyed a period of singleness. Unfortunately, I didn’t see it that way at the time. My 20s were filled with times of longing for relationship, especially when my best friends got married and started having children. I attended more weddings in that period of my life than I have since and my question was always, “When will it be my turn?” Even when my turn came, it didn’t come fast enough. We dated for a year, got engaged and then waited two years to get married because Phil was in the Army Reserve and was expecting to be deployed to Iraq for a year. We didn’t want to start our married life apart so we waited.

I’ve written before about marriage, how it wasn’t what I expected nor did it fulfill my every longing, so I won’t repeat those messages here.

What I haven’t written about is singleness. I don’t have a lot of single friends anymore, not because I don’t want them but because I’ve needed married people and families in my life. But after hearing some words from singles yesterday at church and after thinking about my own years of singleness, I have to say this first: on behalf of married people everywhere, I’m sorry.

I’m sorry that we haven’t celebrated you for you.

I’m sorry that we assume you’d like to watch our kids while we go out for dinner or that you wouldn’t want to hang out with us and be a “third wheel.”

I’m sorry we make marriage look like the ultimate fulfillment of everything everywhere.

I’m sorry we hear “single” and assume you’re lonely.

I’m sorry we don’t throw you showers for moving into your first apartment or take you out for dinner when you get a new job.

I’m sorry we talk about you like you’re some kind of freak of nature because you aren’t married.

I’m sorry we make you feel like time is running out if you don’t get married soon.

I realize those are generalizations and we don’t all do that all the time, but if I’m honest with myself, these kinds of things have come out of my mouth even when I remember how much I cringed at hearing them when I was single.

The truth is this: single is not the same as alone. When I was a single 20-something, I had an awesome group of single friends I could hang out with just about any time of the week. We took road trips. We stayed up late watching movie marathons. We did life together. We celebrated birthdays, took care of each other and helped with life transitions. We were single, but we were not alone. I think of monks who live their lives as single people but in community with other monks. Single people, you do not have to be alone in this season and you don’t have to treat every other single person like a potential date or mate. Community, I believe, is one key to fulfillment in singleness.

Singleness is also not a life sentence. Can we quit using words like “spinster” and “old maid” or condemning people to a life as “the crazy cat lady” if they don’t get married. (Nothing wrong with cats, but do we even think about how demeaning that sounds?) And why do all of those words seem to apply to women? What’s the word for a man who never marries? (Maybe I don’t want to know.) Singleness is usually a season.

But it’s also not a death sentence. I fear we do not tell good stories about the amazing things single people are doing in this world. I met a man this weekend who has never fathered a child but has adopted more than 40 kids off the street. Tell me his life as a single person doesn’t have meaning.

There are other stories like his. Kisses from Katie tells one. Sarah Thebarge’s The Invisible Girls tells another. Maybe you can think of others.

Hear me out single people: You do not have to put your life on hold because you are not married. You have gifts and passions and desires, and quite often you have something us married people lack–energy and time! Do the things you were put on this earth to do, whether you’re married or not. I guarantee you’ll find fulfillment. <Click to tweet that.>

Because the truth about marriage is that you can still feel alone, you can still wish your life was different, you can still wonder if you’ll ever do anything with meaning.

Married people, can we encourage our single friends to follow their God-given passions? Can we talk about the realities of marriage so it’s not all “happily ever after”? Can we celebrate singleness as a gift?

And can we stop assuming something’s wrong with a person if they’re not in a relationship? Sometimes I think that says more about us than it does about them.

Most days I’m glad I’m married, but I also wish I’d done more with my single years. I refuse to live with regrets so I won’t waste a lot of time wishing for those years back. My hope, though, is whatever season you find yourself in, for however long, that you live it like it will last forever (it probably won’t) and don’t wait for “someday” before you live fully.

Jesus has promised us a full and abundant life no matter our marital state. It’s time we live those lives to their fullest potential and encourage others along the way.

Single people, we’re rooting for you. And we love you for you. And we promise to stop asking you stupid questions about your love life.

I’d love it if we could share some stories of single people doing amazing work for God and for good in this world.

Are you one of those people? Tell us your story. Do you know someone like that? Tell us about them!

I would love to feature these kinds of stories on the blog. Contact me at lmbartelt (at) gmail (dot) com if you have a story to share.

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Once upon a time, I was part of a fun little group called an encouragement team. It was a college thing and I’d just begun to love Jesus and I needed to receive the encouragement as much as I needed to give it. We wrote notes on fun paper with stickers and prayed for people and did generally uplifting things for others. It was awesome.

And for some reason, after college, I stopped doing that.

Have you ever noticed how lacking the world is in encouragers? We have cynics and critics and discouragers aplenty, but where are the encouragers? <Click to tweet that>

I will confess that I have dropped the ball, mainly because I have felt so discouraged myself and it’s hard to encourage when your own tank is empty.

Still, it’s part of how God made me. I love receiving encouragement and I love giving it and sometimes I fail at both. Lately, though, it’s resurfacing. And I’m excited.

Maybe you’ve seen me posting this week about (in)courage, an online community of women supporting and encouraging one another. One way is through community groups. (They start Monday! Have you found one yet? Details here.) The groups are designed to connect women with similar interests or in similar stages of life through social media to offer support and encouragement to each other.encouragement

This session, I’m leading one, and I couldn’t be more excited because encouraging is fun! Especially when you get hooked up with some cool products, like these  notecards from Dayspring. (You might be an encourager if you geek out over stationery and stickers.)

The ladies at (in)courage say encouragement is a superpower, and I would have to agree. But it isn’t the kind of superpower bestowed on only a select few (though it does seem to come naturally to some people more than others); it’s the kind of superpower we all can flex, and the more we use it, the stronger it gets.

If encouraging others intimidates or overwhelms you, can I offer some tips? Here are five steps to become an encourager, even if you don’t think of yourself as one:

  1. Assume everyone needs encouragement. I’ve had some experiences lately where I’ve given encouragement to people I thought had no need of it, but I wanted them to know how much I appreciated them. Turns out, even people who seem like they’re confident and living out God’s calling need encouragement too! Everyone needs encouragement in some way or another. If you know even one person, you know someone who needs encouragement.
  2. Notice people. I know, it sounds a little creepy, but it’s basically how I spend my life. I’m watching people all the time, and people will tell you a lot without ever saying a word. Chances are if you start looking around, you’ll find someone who needs encouragement. Maybe it’s the person standing alone in a room full of people. Maybe it’s a child who acts tough but is really sad on the inside. Sometimes the people who need encouragement are the ones we can easily overlook. Start looking.
  3. Do one easy thing now. Texts and Facebook messages are easy for me. I can send off an encouragement text or Facebook post in a matter of seconds. Sometimes, that’s all the time I have. Sometimes, it’s what I can do immediately. But I find that when I sense a need for encouragement, acting sooner rather than later is important. Because I get busy and forget. And then the easy thing becomes harder and harder.
  4. Do one hard thing later. Writing letters and notes to people is harder because it takes more time and costs a stamp and then I have to walk it out to the mailbox and plan ahead if it’s for a birthday (I’m terrible at this). Talking to people in person–even harder. But I don’t have the address for everyone in the world, nor do I always know the name of the person I’m encouraging (although I’m trying more and more to learn names, especially of those people who serve others in some way). So, maybe I write a note once a week to someone just because (we all love mail, right?). Or maybe I get over my introverted nature and tell the woman cleaning the play area at Chick-fil-a that I appreciate her work. Or maybe I do like my friend Carol and hand out restaurant gift cards to the garbage collectors at Christmas because Lord knows that is a job we underappreciate but couldn’t live without.
  5. Equip yourself. I’m much more likely to encourage if I feel prepared. I have an awesome stash of cards and postcards right now, and I can’t wait to send them! But you don’t have to be equipped with stuff.  Equip yourself with words. Practice saying “thank you” or “I appreciate you” or “Gosh, this job might seem lame but you are doing good work!” Pack a little extra tip money the next time you go out to eat. Listen to other people encourage each other and learn from them. It’s not hard, but it does take work sometimes.

Repeat the steps as necessary. I’m rediscovering that the more I encourage the more I want to encourage. And each little step in the direction of encouragement makes my burdens feel a little lighter.

Tell me, what are you experiences with encouragement? Do you dread it? Love it? Never thought about it? When do you feel most encouraged?

I’m linking up with (in)courage today to talk about The Power of Encouragement. Have a blog? Join us with your thoughts. And link up here.

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“Me too.”

Those two words have become the most important words I can hear from someone or say to someone. Because we all think we’re the only ones, right?

The only ones

  • whose marriages struggle.
  • who wonder if it’s okay to not love every second of motherhood.
  • who wonder if it’s okay to feel called to be a mom.
  • who’ve been hurt by the church.
  • who love the church.
  • who believe (fill in the blank) is the best way to live.

The truth is that we’re never alone in whatever ways we struggle. Others have been there. Others are going through it. Others have overcome it.

The hard part is finding the “others.”

Because I don’t know about you but when I look around at the people in my life, I’m certain everyone else has it all together. I’m sure no one else struggles the same way I do. And I’m terrified, sometimes, to ask if that’s true because I’m afraid that it will be.

So, how do we combat this walking around feeling like we’re alone syndrome?

Well, sometimes we have to go first. We have to be the ones to say: “This is how I struggle.” We have to risk vulnerability (and consequently being hurt) and trust that no one will run away screaming because we are freakishly abnormal.

This is hard. And the times I’ve done it have felt like walking naked into a room full of fully clothed people. But sometimes, not always, when that happens, other people start to take that risk too and we find out we’re not alone.

But what if you just can’t do that? What if you’re too alone or too isolated or too hurt to let real-life people in?

Well, that’s where a group called (in)courage can help. Today, registration opens for the next session of (in)courage community groups–small groups of women meeting, sharing, encouraging and connecting through social media. There are groups for various interests and seasons of life. Interested? Check it out here.

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I’ve been part of a group for two sessions now, and I can’t remember how I found it, but I’m so glad I did. I joined at a time when our lives were upside-down and backwards and I needed to know that there were other people out there whose plans for life and ministry were upturned. I’ve been encouraged and prayed for by women I’ve never met in person who live hundreds of miles away, and yet I consider them friends.

That is the strength of these groups.

This session, I’ll be co-leading the group and participating in some blog link-ups on the topics of encouragement and friendship. Would you consider joining one? Read through the information about how the groups work, look at all the options and then give it a try! I don’t believe these groups are meant to replace face-to-face friendships, but sometimes the people who might understand us best aren’t accessible in real life.

The first session begins in a week, and registration closes in two weeks.

You’re not alone. And you don’t have to walk alone. Community can be just a few clicks away.

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For as long as I can remember, I wanted to be popular. Well-liked. As early as kindergarten I was bowing to peer pressure, succumbing to borderline bullying in a desperate attempt to win approval and friendship.

The truth about chasing approval is that you can never get enough and the stakes always get higher. <Tweet that.>

I taunted a boy because my best friend told me to. I agreed to terrible dares in truth or dare because even then I knew that some people couldn’t be trusted with the truths I held inside. I was a great pretender, afraid to ask for explanation when I didn’t understand a word or phrase. I was ashamed to admit I still believed in Santa Claus when my friends’ belief had been spoiled by older siblings.

I learned the art of adapting to my environment. Afraid that everything I did was the wrong way to do things, I watched how my friends brushed their teeth at sleepovers, and ate their breakfasts. I laughed at jokes I didn’t understand and faked enjoyment of things I didn’t enjoy.

I wanted to be liked, accepted, approved. But I didn’t have a clue who I was or what that really meant.

Want to know a secret? Even the popular kids felt this way. Maybe they just knew how to hide it better.

In upper elementary school, I made a new friend. She was new to the school, shy to the point of crying, and brilliant. She’s one of the smartest people I know, and she carved a path through life that few would follow. She was not popular, nor was I, and we became fast friends. She was a faithful friend to me, far more than I’m sure I deserved.

Because even in friendships I was fickle. And if a group I wanted to fit in with was poking fun at someone I considered a friend, I would agree with their remarks. Or say nothing in my friend’s defense. Both are equal betrayals of friendship.

I wanted to be liked by everyone at the same time.

Want to know another secret? This is an impossible goal. To try to fit in with one group meant that I compromised another group. I could not have it both ways.

One day in junior high, I was given an offer. It was almost one that I couldn’t refuse.

I was waiting for my friend at our spot at the cafeteria table where we ate lunch every day. I don’t remember why she wasn’t there yet. Maybe she was buying hot lunch. I hated sitting alone–sometimes I still do–but it never lasted too long and a junior high cafeteria has plenty of opportunity for observation. From our spot in the cafeteria, I secretly pined for the cool table. That’s what we called it. It was loud with laughter and contained every person I thought I wanted to be my friend.

I wasn’t confident or secure enough to just sit down with them. If anyone had ever done that I would have considered them like a god. But this particular day, a girl from the cool table sat down next to me and asked me THE question. Did I want to come sit with them?

My dream was coming true! I was on the verge of saying yes when I caught sight of my friend making her way through the cafeteria. I asked if I could bring her, too. The girl hesitated. The offer was only for me.

Torn between my need to be included and loyalty to my friend, I made some lame excuse about why I needed to stay with her. It wasn’t anything like brave or loyal. It was weak and apologetic.

But I consider that moment a turning point in my life, as silly as it may seem. On that day, I chose to stay on the outside. Sometimes I wonder how terribly different my life would have been had I said yes. I would have lost one friend for sure. Even now, I wonder if the invitation was sincere or if I would have been the token butt of every joke. Undoubtedly, I would have compromised what I knew to be right.

May I confess something to you? Sometimes I’m jealous of my daughter.

She’s 6, wrapping up her first year of school, and currently has three bestest bestest friends. Twice last week she got off the bus wearing one of those crazy antennae headbands that two separate boy kindergartners who ride her bus had given her. Her current seatmate is a sixth-grade boy she can’t stop talking about. Her book buddy is a fifth-grader and to hear her talk, they’re tight.

Even before she went to school, she could make a friend on any given playground in a matter of seconds. Maybe it’s the nature of childhood, but I don’t remember it being that way. She’s confident, sometimes to a fault, outgoing and caring. She loves, loves, loves people. An extrovert if there ever was one. I hate to label her as such so early in her life, but we’re so completely opposite that I have no other explanation.

My hope, my prayer, is that she will always have friends without compromising who she is. It takes everything in me to not say a word when she walks out of the house dressed in 10 different colors and 3 different patterns. I remember the teasing for the clothes I wore, wounds that still sting occasionally when I shop. I know that teasing is probably inevitable but I don’t want to be the one to tell her she must conform in order to be liked. <Tweet that.>

There’s a chance she’ll be popular because of her nature, and IHAVENOIDEAWHATTODOWITHTHAT.

More importantly, I’m not really sure why it matters so much.

Can you handle another confession? I’m an adult and I still want to be liked. I still draw circles around groups of people I think are cool or popular and wonder what it would take to be inside the circle instead of standing outside it.

The tug is still there, to become someone else, to say and do the right things, to feel like I belong. Even in church I feel it. My husband and I have no roots here and though we’ve been in Pennsylvania for five and a half years, friendships take time. And though we each have a greater awareness of who we are and who God is, it is still difficult to let other people see those vulnerable places.

But here’s what I’ve learned since that day I declined the offer to sit with the popular kids: There is no inside. Not really. We’re all on the outside, even if we don’t know it yet.

I’ve made beautiful friendships with people I used to consider unworthy of my attention because I wanted attention myself. And because of that desire to feel included, to belong, to be accepted, I find myself drawn to the outsiders, even when I don’t plan it that way. There is still a real and raging need for acceptance. I’m still jealous when I think I’m being left out of something. I still hang back, waiting for an invitation to be included. I still convince myself I’m not cool enough or don’t dress the right way.

So, I remind myself that Jesus loves outsiders. The people He was most drawn to were on the outside of society for reasons of religion, morality or gender, among others. Jesus compromised nothing about who He is, and a week before His death, he was the most popular man in His day. That, alone, should prove how fickle popularity is–one day a king, a few days later a criminal.

The kingdom of God is built on the idea that we are all outside of it until Jesus brings us into it, and we, in turn, bring others. It is the epitome of belonging and acceptance. We are all on the outside, or we once were, and we are not called to create more circles but to ever expand the circle. To invite others to the table. To slide over and make room. To say, “Come, you’re welcome here.”

And I’ve found the best cure for outside-itis is to do just that. When I feel most excluded, I look for someone to include. When I envy relationships, I reach out to make new ones and cultivate the ones I already have. When I’m waiting for someone to notice me, I take notice of someone who’s not being noticed.

I’d love to tell you that I’m quick to do this and that I do it well every time, but it’s a lie. My first thought is rarely to do the hard thing of initiating conversation with a fellow outsider; I’d much prefer an insider come to me.

But I’m trying. And learning. And remembering.

What about you? Do you ever feel like an outsider?

What makes you feel like you belong?

How do you handle the need for acceptance?

And how do you reach out to others on the outside?

 

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Months ago, as I was considering the word that would define my year, one word settled in my soul. After a year of releasing things and people and feelings and stories, it was time to enjoy.

OW_enjoyAnd in the months since choosing that word (or did it choose me? I don’t know), I’ve thought about what it looks like to enjoy life.

You ready for this earth-shattering, groundbreaking revelation?

I. HAVE. NO. IDEA.

Whew. I feel better.

When I think about a life filled with joy, a person that embodies the very word, I do not fit the bill.

Isn’t the joyful person carefree and bubbly and spontaneous and upbeat? If you know me at all, I am none of those things, so what does it really look like to enjoy life?

I read a quote recently by Henri Nouwen (it was on the Internet, and I haven’t actually read any of his books, shame on me!) that said: “We have to choose joy and keep choosing it.”

Okay, there’s one clue to this mystery. Sometimes, maybe lots of times, joy is a choice. And not a one-time choice.

That is the theme I’m seeing repeated in these first few months of the year.

When I started this joy journey, I thought of course this year would be more enjoyable because the past few years have been so awful that anything–anything–had to be better. In some ways, I was right. We are healthy in multiple ways, finally thriving after years of merely surviving, and that in itself is a reason for joy.

Still, this fear: What if it doesn’t last?

What would you say are the best years of your life?

I posed this question on Facebook after Phil and I had a conversation about “the best years of your life.” At various times in our life, people have told us “this is the best time of your life!’ They’ve said it about high school (sorry, not true); college (um, maybe?); the first year of marriage (nope); seminary (not even close); and parenting young children (sigh). I’ve heard it said your 20s are the best years, your 30s and so on for every decade of life.

Which is why I posed the question. I suspected people of varying ages would answer the question differently. And I was right!

The responses I got ranged from high school to middle age to retirement.

And I’m beginning to think the answer to enjoying life is this:

The best days are now.

The best years are now.

If we choose to let them be.

Maybe you want to throw your computer across the room when you read that. Part of me wants to give myself a stern talking to for saying those words because I have been in some days, some years that I would not consider as best and I would have cussed out anyone who tried to tell me otherwise.

But here’s another truth: Even the best of times have their faults, and if I’m looking for perfect circumstances before I let myself enjoy life, I’ll die empty and miserable, having wasted the days and years I was given waiting for something better.

When I think back on the life I’ve lived so far, high school wasn’t great, but I made some good friends. Would I do things differently if I could? Absolutely. But I had no idea who I was or who I was becoming, and I think that’s another key to enjoying who you are and where you are. College, too, had its high points, including an unbelievable semester living in a manor house in England and traveling to Scotland, Ireland, Paris and Italy. I’m constantly dreaming about going back. But college was also a time of messy self-discovery. I learned some hard lessons and made some of the biggest mistakes of my life.

If I had to answer that question, I’d say my 20s were pretty great. Post-college, I made some amazing friends, had some great experiences of hanging out, going to concerts, traveling and doing the kinds of things when you’re young, working full-time and have no other obligations or attachments. But I struggled in those years to enjoy my job and I desperately wanted an other of the significant kind in my life, and even after I found him, he spent a year in Iraq, which was another of those best-worst times. Even then, I didn’t know who I was.

And my 30s? They’ve been full of marriage messes and family messes and learning to parent and failing and getting back up and figuring out what God has planned through all this. Even though I crest the hill of my 30s next month and look at the downhill toward the next decade of life, I can’t say that my 30s have been the best, either.

So, where does that leave me? Hoping that in my 40s life will get better? It’s possible. But it’s also possible it won’t. I could get cancer. My husband could die. My kids could give me crushing grief.

I don’t know what the next decade of life could bring, so I have to draw a line now and say: This. Right here. Right now. This is the best time of my life because it’s the only time I have. <Tweet that>

best time

I know it’s not easy. I know it takes work. I’m working at it every day. And I know it’s worth it.

I hope you’ll decide to work at it, too and find it worth the effort.

On Friday, I’ll share some specific ways I’ve found to enjoy life, even when it doesn’t look like I thought it would.

In the meantime, ask other people the question: What would you say were the best years of your life? The answers will surprise you.

And if you care to share your answer, leave a comment here.

Let’s help each other choose joy in any and every circumstance.

 

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I came to church in search of sisters, although I didn’t know it then.

Having grown up with family but not in the church, I was often jealous, in my early saved days, of people whose homes were, and always had been, Christian. Not only were they blood relatives but spiritual ones.

I yearned for connection. I loved my biological family. But I needed a spiritual one as well.

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We were four peas in a pod, my best friends in high school. We met in a gym class our freshman year, and in the years that followed we were inseparable. We watched Disney movies at sleepovers while our classmates partied on the weekends. We ate lunch together and welcomed the outcasts to our table. We arranged our schedules so we would share some classes throughout the day. We passed notes in the hallway and defended each other.

It was my first experience with sisterhood.

Read the rest on Preston Yancey’s blog here, part of a series, What Women Want from the Church, posting on Thursdays.

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It’s been a busy, eventful couple of days in our house plus it’s VBS week, so we’re tired, out of rhythm and emotionally spent. Thus, today’s post is a little later than usual. (FYI: The blog posts might be less frequent for a few weeks. We’ve got NEWS to share later this week!)

But first: We left our church this week. It was inevitable but the date snuck up on us. At the end of May, we were looking ahead at our summer calendar and realized there would be a stretch of 6 weeks where we’d not be in the same place two Sundays in a row before the end of July (and Lord willing, we’d hoped to be moved by then!). So, we announced our departure a week ago and said our farewells two days ago. (Although we’re attending VBS this week, so some of the farewells are stretched out.)

The tears flowed freely, which also caught me by surprise. Not because I’m not sad to leave but sometimes I avoid the emotion for so long that I think I’ve grown cold to it. Not so. I was sloppy crying all over the place. A book I read recently contained this line: “Sometimes prayers are wet.” And I like that because yes, sometimes they are.

Photo by Tim Nisly | courtesy of Stock Exchange

Photo by Tim Nisly | courtesy of Stock Exchange

Almost five years ago, we walked through the doors of this church as strangers from Illinois with high hopes for seminary, an adorable 5-month-old, and not a clue how hard it would really be to live 800 miles from family.

But this church, these people, embraced us like we were already family. They became to us grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles, sisters and brothers. They watched our children. They fed us. Clothed us. Supported us. Encouraged us. They’ve given so much, and we feel the inequality of our lives in return.

As we looked around us on Sunday at the congregation, a special word or memory began springing to our minds about each person or family, and Phil and I knew if we started to count our blessings and name them from this church, we would find ourselves overwhelmed by the number and overcome with gratitude.

We leave, not as strangers, not even as fellow members of the same denomination, but as family whose bond will not end though distance will separate us.

As a writer, I don’t have enough words to describe how this community has touched us. But, of course, I’ll give it my best shot.

This was our first family church. My husband I have the same home church, but we’ve only ever attended there as singles or dating each other. Our first church after we were married we attended only until our daughter was five months old. It was more of a couples experience for us.

Here, though, we learned how to function as a family within a spiritual family. Our daughter has grown up here and has learned to love Jesus because of faithful teachers. Our son, this is the only church he’s really ever known, and he and his sister sometimes “play church” with one of them being the pastor and the other providing the singing. He has his favorite people; they both do, really, and I don’t know if they quite understand that we won’t be back except on a few special occasions.

We’ve done our fair share of leaving places in our short marriage, and it’s hard each time because we form bonds quickly, sometimes, and the leaving tears out a piece of our hearts and keeps it in the places we leave behind. And though social media and e-mail make things easier, it’s never really the same.

Good heavens, I’m going to start crying again if I keep this up.

It’s weird, how five years ago, these people were strangers and now they’re like family we didn’t know we had. And that’s exciting because we’re moving to another church where that’s possible, too. And I know it will be good for us.

Still, it’s hard to say good-bye.

But maybe we don’t say good-bye, just “see you later.”

Because in the end, that’s the truth. We will see our brothers and sisters again. It’s a mystery to me, this promise from God that our lives don’t end when our bodies die and that we’ll come together again as a family in spirit.

But that is our hope.

In the meantime, we carry with us the memories of our beloved family in Christ and the imprints they’ve made on our lives that will outlast our earthly relationships.

Until we meet again, dear church. Until we meet again.

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Shauna Niequist has written about two things I love: cooking and community. Her newest book, Bread & Wine, is part memoir, part cookbook, part travel journal, and it is a book you’ll want to savor, and read multiple times. (Disclaimer: I received a free copy of Bread & Wine from Zondervan through the Booksneeze program.)

bread and wine coverFrom dinner parties, to family get togethers, to cooking clubs, to crisis and disappointment, Niequist writes about the role of food and life around the table in all of life. She loves food and people and the memories that surface of good times and sad and how food and community minister and comfort and heal. If I could eat the pages of this book, I would, but then I wouldn’t be able to try the recipes.

Bread & Wine left me hungry–for community and delicious food–and full–of my own memories of life around the table and hope that offering community around a table doesn’t have to be perfect or difficult. I dog-eared dozens of pages and found myself nodding in agreement with Niequist’s observations about life.

Here are some of my favorites.

On the role of food:

It’s no accident when a loved o ne dies, the family is deluged with food. The impulse to feed is innate. Food is a language of care, the thing we do when traditional language fails us, when we don’t know what to say, when there are no words to say. … It’s the thing that connects us, that bears our traditions, our sense of home and family, our deepest memories, and, on a practical level, our ability to live and breathe each day. Food matters. (14)

On hospitality:

But it isn’t about perfection, and it isn’t about performance. You’ll miss the richest moments in life–the sacred moments when we feel God’s grace and presence through the actual faces and hands of the people we love–if you’re too scared or too ashamed to open the door. (109)

And,

The heart of hospitality is about creating space for someone to feel seen and heard and loved. It’s about declaring your table a safe zone, a place of warmth and nourishment. (114)

Niequist’s stories of travel and cooking and experiences make her the kind of person I’d secretly love to hate, but she is brutally honest about her shortcomings (there’s a swimsuit chapter I will be referring to often this summer) and disappointments (infertility between her first son and her second) and in the end, she’s the sort of person I’d love to hang out with for a day. The writing is personal, like she’s telling you her stories around the table, and the recipes are accessible, like she’s standing with you in the kitchen walking you through each step.

If you’re a fan of food and community, this is a book you MUST have on your shelf. Inspiring and encouraging.

Niequist has written two other books, both of which I’m eager to read now.

For more about the author, visit her website: http://www.shaunaniequist.com/

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My birthday is tomorrow. Which got me thinking about gifts. Not because I’m totally gift-focused because I’m not. Receiving gifts actually stresses me out a little bit because I’m not good at giving an instant reaction. My thanks is better expressed in how I use the gift than in the exact moment I receive it.

Photo courtesy of Stock Exchange | www.sxc.hu

Photo courtesy of Stock Exchange | http://www.sxc.hu

Here are some memorable gifts I didn’t ask for that touched my heart. (Please don’t be offended if you’ve given me a gift and it’s not mentioned here. These are the first five that came to mind and they aren’t all birthday gifts. The danger of making a short list is leaving someone out.)

1. A pink Columbia brand fleece jacket. The first Christmas Phil and I celebrated as a couple, this was his gift. I remember how excited he was to give it to me, and it is still my go-to outerwear in spring, fall and sometimes winter. My husband is great at giving gifts. I could spend an entire post on the best gifts he’s given me, but I’d probably lose readers.

2. The Book of Common Prayer. A couple from church gifted this to us as we’ve expressed an interest and love for liturgy, the church calendar and the use of the lectionary. I have used this book almost daily for months, and it continues to touch my heart because it is a gift I would have never thought to ask for from people who haven’t known us long but were thoughtful enough to present us with a gift we will cherish.

3. An ice scraper and a spray-on window defroster for my car. In the early days of my relationship with Phil, we spent a lot of time at each other’s houses, often driving home in winter in the dark, when northern Illinois temperatures drop below freezing and leave frost on the windshield. One night, Phil’s brother and the woman who would become his wife, gave me this gift to ease the process of driving home in winter. It was especially meaningful because at the time, our relationship was not strong nor was I terribly kind or loving toward them. Over the years, that has changed and I’ve learned that they, too, are exceptional gift givers.

4. An all-expenses-paid trip to a writers conference in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. I will forever remember the generosity of a couple from my hometown who saw an advertisement for this conference and felt led to pay  my way. I had never considered going to a writers conference. I was working as a journalist at the time with no concrete writing dreams beyond what I was doing. It was a stretching experience for me as I drove the whole way by myself, took in some sight-seeing on the way back and let God open my world to the opportunities in Christian publishing. It was a life-changer for me, and I consider it an investment that has yet to accomplish its full return.

5. A royal wedding tea cup. When Prince William and Kate Middleton got married, my English friend and pen pal sent me a tea cup with their pictures on it. I was having sort of a blah day when it arrived and I was so tickled because of the uniqueness of the gift.

This is a small slice of the meaningful gifts I’ve received over the years, and recalling them makes me feel blessed to have special people in my life. It also challenges me to take more notice of my loved ones and find gifts that would be meaningful to them.

How about you? What meaningful gifts have you received?

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