The one gift I can give this year

We’re in a terrible rush these days.

Have you noticed?

It seems no matter where I am, someone is honking or speeding by or cutting someone off or ignoring the people around them. We’re so busy, looking for the shortest lane at the store, the fastest way from here to there.

So hurried.

Waiting is an obstacle to accomplishing tasks, patience no longer a virtue.

Life is just flying by, and what do we have to show for it?

Photo by S. Charles | Creative Commons

Photo by S. Charles | Creative Commons

I am not ready for Christmas. I am never ready for Christmas. I still have family photo cards from last year that never made it to the mail. (Confession: I’m tempted to send them out again this year. Do you think anyone would notice?)

I have a hard time planning ahead to send Christmas cards and shop for gifts. It’s not like Christmas comes as a surprise every year. I just fail to plan for it. Sometime after Thanksgiving (and after our son’s birthday), I start thinking about Christmas, but frankly, it stresses me out a little to add all these other things to my already cluttered life: decorating a tree, sending cards, buying presents, making cookies. I enjoy all of those things; I just don’t appreciate the pressure I feel to get it all done in this short amount of time.

What’s the point of Advent?

A friend asked this on Facebook recently. My answer was less than theological or educated, and her question is not at all surprising. Until a few years ago, I didn’t think much of Advent, that season of the year preceding Christmas. Maybe we opened a calendar with candy in it as kids. Maybe we tried to mark down the days somehow. Even now, with kids, making time for Advent activities seems like one more thing to add to the already busy time of year.

This year we’re using some Advent readings from Thriving Family magazine and twice already, we’ve gotten behind and had to catch up on the days we missed. Sometimes I want to just forget the whole thing. Is it really worth it?

And then it happens.

We find a cute tree. We make room for it in the house and decorate it. We drag out the kids’ nativity set and they begin to tell stories about “the time when Jesus came to be born.” nativity

And even though these acts are small and ordinary, they remind me that this is no ordinary time. It is a time to remember, yes. But also to pause.

A time to wait and expect.

The kids practically bounce off the walls with excitement now that the tree is up and there are presents under it. Christmas is special and they know it.

Do I know it?

I am obsessed with the idea of light breaking into darkness.

Light equals hope. Aren’t we all a bit happier when the sun shines after days of rain? Doesn’t something in us brighten also?

And this is what happens during Advent. We who bear the Light of God proclaim to those walking in darkness (we were once those people, too) that Light has come and Light is coming. Light is breaking through. The world will no longer be dark. There is hope. Hold on just a bit longer. Come with us and we’ll show you the Way to the Light.

Photo by Hartmut Tobies | Creative Commons | via unsplash

Photo by Hartmut Tobies | Creative Commons | via unsplash

 —

It is easier, sometimes, to pierce the darkness with light at Christmas. Sometimes we are kinder, more patience, more peaceful, more generous. Sometimes not.

I never quite understood the phrase “the Christmas spirit,” as if our mood during this time was limited to only a few weeks or a month out of the year.

Come January do we all turn back into misers? Is there something magical about this time that brings out the best in us? Or is it just easier to hide the worst in us when all around us is seemingly jolly?

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. (Galatians 5:22-23)

Sometimes when I look at the world I see only hate, sadness, war, hurry, meanness, evil, harshness and greed. (I don’t have to look far. All those things are inside of me.)

So I find it interesting that the fruit of the Spirit is all the things lacking in our world, in my world, today: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

These are small battles, for sure, in a war that rages across humanity.

But they are satisfying victories that allow a pinprick of light to shine in the darkness.

This is Advent.

Not a loud proclamation that life as we know it is over.

Not a terrifying battle cry that we’re about to be taken prisoner.

Not a forced servitude.

No.

It is little bits of light in the dark.

It is the hope that comes with a newborn baby.

It is a promise that life goes on.

It is expectation that the world will not always be dark.

It is an invitation to join a revolution whose core value is love.

It is a hand extended in friendship and brotherhood, a voice that says, “Follow me. There’s another way to live.”

It starts with Advent and continues through Christmas, but heaven help us if it ends there.

If I could give the world a gift this year, it would be my own commitment to be Light and Love and Hope all year long.

Of course I’ll fail at that, but it’s certainly worth a try.

Do you celebrate Advent? What does it mean to you?

How does the Christmas season affect you?

The weird thing about grief

My cell phone rang while I was making a special lunch for my son’s birthday on Tuesday. I almost never get calls and almost never in the middle of the day, and when I saw that it was my mom, I just knew it wasn’t going to be good news.

And it wasn’t. My uncle Bill had died sometime in the night. We’d known it was coming. His lungs were failing and his health was deteriorating quickly in the last few weeks. But it doesn’t make the sadness any less sad.

We talked briefly, my mom and I, and just as we were ending the call, her voice cracked, and I almost did, too. I wandered the kitchen, waiting for my husband to come back with our son from preschool (and the final ingredient I needed to finish lunch) when my phone rang again with a number I didn’t know or hadn’t saved since I switched phones. It was my cousin, whose father was the uncle who just died.

We’ve rarely talked on the phone, he and I, but that day, I was glad to hear his voice. (He lives in Colorado; I live in Pennsylvania.) We didn’t talk about much, but his voice, too, cracked as we ended the call. While we were talking, my husband came home and I must have had a distressed look on my face because he seemed to know, too. I ended that call, having not shed a tear yet and just sobbed into my husband’s chest while he wrapped his arms around me.

I cried for the loss and the pain that my family members were experiencing and the separation that kept me from being with them in their grief. My mom, my other uncle, my grandparents are at least all in the same state and have each other to grieve with. My cousin has his mom and my uncle’s friends and co-workers. I’m feeling a bit lost in the process out here in Pennsylvania.

And did I mention that it was my son’s birthday and I still had a cake to decorate? How is a person supposed to decorate a birthday cake and celebrate the passage of another year of life when death has just visited your family?

grief_cake

I don’t know.

When my tears subsided, I finished making lunch. We talked to our son about why mommy was crying. And then my husband played Legos with the birthday boy while I decorated the cake in the kitchen. grief_dad_boy legos

It was surprisingly therapeutic to create something fun and beautiful with my hands while sadness made its home inside of me.

We continued our birthday celebration. We told our daughter the news when she got home from school. We ended the day as normally as possible, though we did stay up late putting Legos together. Whenever there’s a tragic loss of life, especially if it is close to home, I always want to spend more time together with the people I love. It’s like grief and loss remind me that nothing is guaranteed and every moment matters.

I haven’t experienced a lot of grief for deaths in the family. At 36 years old, I still have both of my parents in good health, and three out of four grandparents. Our losses have been few in my lifetime, though I realize that somewhere in the not-so-distant future, the losses could accumulate more rapidly than I’d like.

I know almost nothing about the grieving process except that it’s different for everyone and takes varying amounts of time and really, there are no rules when it comes to how people process loss.

My uncle and I weren’t terribly close. He lived in Colorado for most of my life. But his son, my cousin, is like another brother. We are nearly the same age and my brother and I spent many summers with him at our grandparents’ house in Illinois. I have many memories of our escapades together. A few years ago, my husband and I got to fly to Colorado for my cousin’s wedding, and there I had the chance to get to know my uncle again and spend time with him as a grown-up. I’m so grateful we took that trip even though our basement had just flooded in a freakish rainstorm.

So, I’m not sure how I’m supposed to process this loss. How much do I grieve the loss of a man who is important to me because he is important to people I love?

The day after his death, my emotions were raw and I was feeling everything. Grief felt like a heavy blanket over my head and I couldn’t get enough air. grief_legosI played Legos with my son and again found a measure of relief. I don’t know if it’s the creating or the focusing on a task or doing something childlike but whatever it was, it lifted the fog a bit.

grief_birthday candlesThat night we helped decorate the church for Christmas, something I haven’t done yet at our house, and the joy and light of Christmas decorations reminded me that a light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. (That’s in the Bible. Don’t ask me to cite it right now.) That hope descends to the hopeless. That love has the last word. (That’s a line from Jason Gray.)

I desperately want to spend time with my family right now, and I may get my wish over Christmas. Until then, though, this grief thing is weird. Yesterday and today life has been almost normal. But I can’t say whether that will last.

I am not sticking to a healthy eating plan right now because sometimes grief says, “Eat a cupcake.” But it also says, “Take a walk. Slow down. Be present. Notice what’s around you.”

I am trying to do those things.

Maybe I’ll be able to write a post soon telling you about my uncle and the things I appreciated and loved about him. But that’s not for today.

Today, I just want to say that grief is weird. And that’s okay.

No words of wisdom from me.

But maybe you have some to share?

To the boy who turns 5

All I did was write the title of this post, and already, I’m nearly in tears.

It’s not that I don’t want you to grow up. I do want that because that’s the way of things.

Sometimes, though, I wish it didn’t happen so fast.

Wasn’t it just a minute ago that you were barreling into the world via emergency C-section because you were bigger than life?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

And seconds ago you were a smiley baby I snuggled tight while trying to balance your needs and your toddling sister’s needs.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Now you’re five. You’ll be on your way to kindergarten next year, and though I am looking forward to the days of having my own schedule again, I have to admit that I will miss you.Corban and mommy

You’ve never known anything but a mom who stays home with you. And these last two years, when your sister went off to school, it’s been just you and me, precious time I wouldn’t trade for anything because I saw your personality bloom.

You’ve become my helper. At grocery shopping. At running errands. At washing dishes and doing laundry. You’ve kept me sane through some insanity because you are funny and compassionate and easy to please, when the occasion warrants.

Corban cooks

I thought I knew everything about babies and children after your sister was born. Having a second child seemed easier than the first time around. But you’ve kept us on our toes–from the numerous ear infections as a baby to the urgent care visit in Illinois to our first trip to the ER for a “pediatric head injury.” You live life wild and hard and sometimes you have cuts and bruises and scars that appear from where you’ve tried to take out a wall on accident. (Even when you play soccer with your sister, we see the football–the other kind–potential in you.)

Without you, I wouldn’t know that it was possible for a person to be noisy from the moment they woke up to the moment they fell asleep. The house is quiet without you. I’m not 100 percent sure what’s going on inside your brain, but occasionally, during the noise, all the thoughts and questions and ideas leak out. I can’t wait to see what happens when you’re in school.

Corban dragon

And speaking of questions: you have so many. I can’t really complain because I was the same way as a child. Even as an adult, I’m asking questions all the time, even if I don’t voice them. You love to know how things work and the reason for things. Just the other night, I was amazed by the workings of your little brain. We walked downtown in the city, you holding my gloved hand with your gloved hand. We hadn’t taken more than a few steps from the car and you were studying a building and a staircase, trying to figure out where it went and how it got there. The amazement I heard in your voice made me pause to be amazed, too.

This, too, is what you’ve done to me. You’ve made me notice things I wouldn’t otherwise see. Because of you I see trucks of all kinds on the road. I know the difference between a bulldozer and a backhoe and a skid loader because that’s what you want to read about. I’m learning about trains and bridges and trucks because those are the non-fiction books you find at the library. (And you want to read every word because you want to know how it works.)

Before you were born, I wondered if I had enough love for two children. In some weird way, my love wasn’t split; it was multiplied.

Corban batman

And now you’re 5 and the years have already passed so quickly. And I wonder if I’ll blink and you’ll be on the verge of manhood. Will I always see you as a little boy?

You bring so much life to our lives. I know we don’t have a lot of proof of our love, at least not in the form of pictures. It’s true what they say about subsequent children and the lesser amount of photos. We were too busy loving you and your sister, figuring out our life as a family of four, becoming a healthy place for you to grow up. You might never read these words, or maybe you will someday when you’re much older, but let them reflect all the love I don’t say, all the love you don’t see when you look for pictures of your childhood. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

You are so very loved, wanted from the moment we knew you were coming, even though it scared us.

We can’t imagine our family without you.

Happy birthday, Corban. You are, and will always be, what your name means: a gift given back to God.

Shake up your holiday shopping by making a difference in the world

I know it’s Thanksgiving and we’re not supposed to be online hanging with our virtual friends when we’re supposed to be spending time with family and loved ones (and don’t worry, I wrote this post yesterday!) BUT on the off chance you’re headed out to do some Thursday/Black Friday/I don’t know what to call it anymore shopping tonight or tomorrow or this weekend, I wanted to once again ask you to consider changing the way you shop this holiday season.

Because to hear the advertisers tell it, I’m not really thankful or happy this year unless I put in new carpeting or redecorate my house or buy the latest gadget or spoil my children with every.single.toy in the store.

You know that’s not true, right?

You know you have the power to change that story, right? For you and for others?

The holidays, Christmas, in particular, don’t have to be about accumulating more stuff or buying in a frenzy or going into debt. You can choose meaningful gifts, ones that even make a life-saving difference in someone else’s life. Really.

I think we can all agree that we have a lot of choices in our lives. Confession: I nearly had a meltdown in the bread aisle the other night because we had a dozen different choices about what kind of hamburger buns we could buy. (Kaiser. Potato. Wheat. Slider size. Regular size. On and on.) And somewhere on the other side of the world, a mama doesn’t have enough money to buy any bread. Period.

Let that sink in but don’t let it paralyze you.

You can do some good. Right here. Right now. For someone else who truly needs it.

There are hundreds of companies doing good with their goods, and that can be overwhelming, I know. So, here are a few ideas to help you shake up your holiday shopping, if you don’t know where to start.

1. Imagine Goods. This company is one you will hear/read about from me all.the.time. The co-owner is a friend who lives in the same town, but even if I didn’t know her personally, I would want you to shop here. They sell beautiful home goods like tablecloths, cloth napkins and aprons, as well as fashionable clothing for women, children and men. And the clothing is all made in Cambodia by women who have been sexually exploited or are at-risk of exploitation because of financial or family situations. Imagine Goods offers them decent working conditions and a livable wage. As a bonus, the company partners with other organizations doing good, such as Love146, making clothing and products for them, as well. (They’re running a 20 percent off sale through Sunday with the code “Thankful Hearts.”)

2. Ornaments4Orphans. I just learned about this organization last weekend at a Christmas open house another friend hosted. They sell handcrafted ornaments made in East Africa through fair trade practices, and the proceeds benefit programs that help orphaned and vulnerable children, particularly in Uganda. If you’re looking for unique Christmas tree decorations, look here.

3. Ten Thousand Villages. I had never heard of this until we moved to Pennsylvania six years ago (because it’s based here), but this is one of my favorite places to shop/browse. Everything sold in stores and online is made by artisans in countries all over the globe. These artisans are paid fairly for their work. You can find jewelry and home decor and wall art and more. If you don’t have a store near you, browse online. Unique gifts made with care.

4. Imana Kids. If you decide that you and your loved ones really do have enough stuff, you can still spend money and make a difference in the world. Another friend is involved with this great ministry in Rwanda, caring for orphans through safe homes, basic needs and education. They’re currently trying to furnish a home that can serve as a safe haven and meeting place for the kids until permanent homes are found. They are aiming to raise $30,000 and you can help by buying plates and bowls, blankets, sheets, furniture and one month of clean water. Check out their gift catalog for the full list of gift options. These are basic needs, not above-and-beyond needs.

Truly, you (and I) have no reason not to support organizations such as these. And not only at Christmas but year-round. Will it mean sacrifice? Yep. Will it mean discomfort? Yep. (Will it mean a meltdown in the bread aisle because you have so.many.choices? Maybe!) But I promise you, you won’t regret it.

Count the cost this Christmas. The cost of whatever it is you think you need compared to the cost of basic needs a fellow human being needs.

You don’t have to overhaul your whole shopping list today (or even this year). Start small if you have to. Make one better choice this year. And then maybe next time you need a gift, you make another choice like this. And then maybe next year you’ll be ready to make even more changes to your shopping list.

I know it’s not easy. Trust me, I do. We do not have loads of money to spend on things, but we have more than enough of what we need. And I can’t in good conscience live my life only and always for myself. I just can’t. (Though sometimes I try really hard to do just that.)

Maybe you have some other organizations to add to this list. Feel free!

Whatever you do, don’t ignore this post. I can personally vouch for Imagine Goods and Imana Kids, if you’re worried about accountability. They are good friends doing good work that is also very hard.

Any excuse you are thinking of right now, I’ve said it to myself.

This is not about guilt. (I’m sorry if it sounds that way. I’m a mom! I think it’s ingrained!)

And it’s not about charity.

It’s about justice. About making things right. About doing for someone what you would want them to do for you. In an honorable and dignified way.

I could go on, but I don’t want you to fall into a turkey induced coma.

Just think about it, okay?

That’s the last I’ll say about it. Today.

3 words I never thought I’d hear in church

On any given Sunday, I can expect to hear certain things during a church gathering. Songs of praise. Prayers. Announcements about activities. Bible verses.

But a couple of Sundays ago, I heard three words I never, ever, ever, expected to hear in church.

They weren’t swear words or anything like that, but they were a bit shocking.

Are you ready for them?

Here they are: washable feminine pads.

Sorry if I lost a few male readers with that revelation, but if you’re not too squeamish, stick around and hear why these words were part of our service.

Every once in a while, members of our church volunteer at a GAIN (Global Aid Network) distribution center in our county. Recently, a group took a Wednesday night to help out at the center, and the following Sunday, our pastor reported on their activities. Sometimes, the groups work with boxes or blankets. This time, though, they helped in a completely different way.

They traced a pattern and cut material to make washable feminine pads for women in developing countries.

Now, ladies, I don’t know about you, but I can hardly even talk about my monthly “gift” without squirming and getting embarrassed. My husband is completely comfortable making a run to Target or CVS for supplies when I’m desperate, but I feel like I might as well be wearing a blinking sign when I purchase the same products. So, I could hardly believe my ears when this topic was talked about at length at the start of our service by our pastor.

And there were pictures! Pictures of our church people doing this work. I wanted to crawl away or laugh nervously.

But then I got over it. Or I tried. Because the reality is this: I have nothing to be embarrassed about.

Women in developing countries face real shame about their femininity. You can read more here. Shunned. Degraded. Ostracized. Imagine if you had to miss 20 percent of your school year? If you couldn’t go out in public for the duration of your period?

The simple solution is this topic we talked about in church: washable feminine pads.

Shame on me for being embarrassed to talk about it. And for thinking only of myself.

How easy it is for me to go to a local store and pick up what I need and carry on with my day (mostly) during that time of the month. How easy it is for me to not even think that someone else doesn’t have it that way.

And this is my main problem as privileged American: selfish, narrow-minded thinking.

Slowly, I’m gaining knowledge, becoming aware of the needs of people worldwide, convicted of how my selfishness negatively affects people I don’t even know.

I won’t ask if you’ve ever thought about the menstrual cycles of women in developing countries because until that Sunday, I hadn’t.

But what about the source of your luxuries?

We’re entering a season of the year where sweets and food and gifts take front and center. Halloween. Thanksgiving. Christmas. This is an important question all year long, but at least during this end-of-the-year stretch, we need to talk about it and remember.

When you eat chocolate, do you think about how it got to you? Do you know about children enslaved to harvest cocoa beans so you can have a sweet treat?

What about when you drink tea or coffee? Do you wonder if the farmers who grow it get paid fairly?

How about that quinoa you eat because it’s a health food fad and is a good source of non-meat protein? Do you wonder if your consumption of it, our demand for it, impacts the Andean people where it’s grown?

What about your chocolate hazelnut spread that uses palm oil thus destroying the habitat of orangutans? (I learned this while visiting a zoo.)

I could keep going talking about our technology and the minerals used in our phones and computers, about the diamonds we covet and the corruption bred in the countries where such things flourish.

It’s overwhelming. Really. There’s almost no part of our lives untouched by the corruption and exploitation of others. That’s the bad news.

The good news is we have choices. Lots and lots of choices. And we have knowledge.

And even if we can’t change everything, we can change some things. Now. Even if it’s just one thing.

Not long ago, I switched to fair trade coffee in my house. This is not a huge sacrifice because Costco sells it in bulk and it’s not terribly expensive. It hasn’t really affected the amount of coffee I consume. It’s not as easy when I’m drinking coffee away from home, but it’s possible. More companies are using direct-trade, fair trade or other sustainably sourced beans in some of their coffees.

Then I started buying fair trade tea. I don’t drink as much tea as coffee, and this one is much more obvious in its impact on my finances. Fair trade teas are not cheap. But neither is justice.

Our next move is chocolate, and I will confess that this one is hard because chocolate is everywhere and it’s cheap. The fair trade kind is expensive (and delicious!) and not in every candy aisle. It’s a special trip or an online order. But, it’s not impossible.

October is fair trade month, and through the website Klout, which tracks online influence, I received a box of fair trade products as a gift. Snacks made with fair trade chocolate, a quinoa/rice blend in a box made with fair trade quinoa. Tea, both hot and cold. All of it delicious and all of it fair.

So. What’s my point? I started off talking about washable feminine pads and now I’m on to fair trade food.

I think my point is this: it’s easy to look away or think only of ourselves, of the cost to us, which is really only monetary. It’s easy to want to be comfortable and not talk about things like child slavery or women being shunned for having a period.

But we need to know. And we need to talk about it. And we need to act.

It’s good to get a little squeamish. It’s good to talk about things that make us uncomfortable. Because then we’re better able to identify. To say, what if it was me?

My challenge to you (and to me) this season is to make one small change you can carry through beyond the first of the year. Swap out your favorite tea with a fair trade brand. Buy a bag of fair trade coffee. Check the source of your favorite chocolate treat. Ask more questions about where your food comes from. Buy your next new outfit from a company whose clothes are ethically sourced and fairly made. Read a book about human trafficking or corruption in governments whose resources are valuable.

There are a lot of companies to choose from, a lot of lists on other blogs out there to help you with these decisions. If you need specific direction, leave a comment about the change you’d like to make and I’ll see if I can point you in the right direction.

Or just leave a comment about the change you plan to make so we can encourage each other to stick with it.

When it’s Father’s Day and I remember

When Throwback Thursday comes around each week, I find myself thumbing through a bin of photos looking for just the right one to capture that week’s sentiment. More often than not, I spend a whole morning looking and remembering.

A few weeks ago I found a bunch from a family vacation we took out West to Utah and Arizona in 1993. The one where we drove through the desert and saw awe-inspiring rock formations and stood at the edge of the Grand Canyon breathless and speechless.

My brother is that white speck at the bottom.

My brother is that white speck at the bottom.

Later that week, I was thinking about all the places I want my kids to see in their life. How I want to take them to Niagara Falls because it’s closer than it ever was from where I grew up. How I want them to experience people and places all over the world. How I want them to remember road trips as fun and exciting, not torturous boredom. (Our daughter just agreed that traveling U.S. Route 30 from here to our hometown sounded like fun. Parenting win!)

I want them to see beyond the small slice of the world we live in. And I have my dad to thank for that.

Last year, I wrote a little bit about my dad, but recently I’ve discovered another way he has quietly shaped my life: He planted in us–my brother and me–a sense of adventure.

My dad showing us how tall this tall cactus really was!

My dad showing us how tall this tall cactus really was!

I was not what you would call a risky child. Constantly worried about doing the wrong thing or getting in trouble, I was a stick-to-the-rules-and-nobody-gets-hurt kind of girl. And trying new things was not high on my list any day of the week.

But I remember loving the idea of seeing new places.

I couldn’t tell you from memory what our first family vacation was, but I can tell you that I remember taking them.

The one that probably stands out the most is the one I mentioned earlier. It was our longest trip by car, spanning two weeks, and we packed a lot of sightseeing into those weeks. (And remember this was before the days of Google and GPS, so we planned our trip with maps and travel brochures. Old school!) Arches National Park. Zion National Park. The Grand Canyon. Utah. Arizona. And lots of places between there and our home state, Illinois.

What I always remember from those trips, imperfect as they were, is my dad. He made sure we experienced things in our childhood that were missing from his. When he saw the Grand Canyon, it was his first time also. Sharing that awe gave me a greater appreciation for whatever we were experiencing. No matter what we were doing, Dad made it an adventure.

We had this sort of unofficial rule that we couldn’t eat at places we could eat at if we weren’t on vacation. We avoided McDonald’s and Wendy’s whenever possible so we had to try new things.

Confession: This terrified me. I was so insecure in my growing up years that I didn’t know what I liked, including what I liked to eat. Ordering at a familiar restaurant was easy because I would usually just get the same thing every time. New places, though. I could hardly make up my mind and would usually just panic at the last minute and order the first thing I saw. I also had an overactive imagination (serves me well as a writer though!) so I’d imagine all the trouble we’d find by visiting a new place.

For my dad, though, it was part of the adventure. And a necessary part of the adventure. I don’t remember every off-the-beaten-path place we’ve been to, but I know my husband once found his new favorite barbecue sauce at a joint attached to a gas station. If we’d been traveling alone, we might have missed it, but my dad pulled in ready to try something new. We’ve eaten at family restaurants and new-to-us fast food places.

And I survived every single one of them.

With two young kids who I’d only call picky about when they eat not what they eat, we don’t do this enough on our travels, but my husband has a similar sense of adventure to my dad, and he builds on my childhood experiences by taking me places I’d never venture into alone. (And trust me, I’m not sorry he does it. I’d have missed out on a bacon milkshake if not for my husband.)

I’m still less of an adventurer than some people I know. I won’t be the first to volunteer for something new and even when trying something new, I’m still hesitant sometimes. I still crave the familiar and comfortable but my life is so often enriched by the unfamiliar that I’m learning to embrace those times.

I don’t know if my dad knew that’s what he was doing all those years we went on vacation or if he just brought us along on trips he thought would be fun. But I can definitely say that my increasing love of travel, of seeing new places, of visiting local eateries, started with him.

So, even though it’s hard beyond words sometimes that our family lives 800 miles from our families and hometown, our living in Pennsylvania is part of a lifelong adventure we’re passing on to our kids.

My dad took us across the country on vacation. That led me to take a trip across the ocean for a semester of college. Then it was a trip across the eastern states to make a life with my husband. Where it will lead next, I don’t know, but I’m so very thankful for a father who challenged us to see a world outside our hometown.

I’ve heard said that the best things parents can give their children is roots and wings. Because of mine, I have both. And so, I hope, will my kids.

Happy Father’s Day to my dad and all the dads out there!

What is one thing you’ve learned from your father?

What I learned from Lent

I’ve never been very good at observing (celebrating? commemorating? participating in?) Lent. Discipline and I don’t really get along well, a relationship I keep meaning to reconcile, but well, life.

I’m terrible at persevering and following through and any time I’ve tried to give up something for the 40 days of Lent I either end up miserable, forgetful or failing. Ritual for the sake of ritual doesn’t interest me so there have been years where I’ve virtually ignored Lent because I just didn’t know what to do with it.

This year, we belong to a church that treats Lent differently than any other church we’ve been part of. For the weeks of Lent, we partner with a church in Chicago to reflect on, and inform ourselves about, a justice issue in our world. This year, it was about incarceration. Here’s what I wrote at the start of Lent.

And here’s what I can tell you now: I did not give my whole self to Lent. I read the devotionals sporadically. I wore a button … until I lost it. And while I was moved and angered and saddened by what I learned about the prison system in our country, it didn’t cause any action on my part.prison button

I mean, I wrote the blog post, I read a book about women coming out of prison and the struggles they face, and I signed some online petitions and sent some e-mails to congressmen whose votes can change the way things are done.

But does any of that matter?

What I learned during Lent, what I seem to always learn during Lent, is that I am selfish. And distracted. And busy with a lot of things that don’t matter.  I’m willing to do a little but maybe not a lot. I’m good at talking and writing about issues but when it comes to acting or doing, not so much. I don’t beat myself up too much because that doesn’t do any good, either, so I’m left with questions.

What can I do? What else can I do? What more can I do? And how?

Wearing the button on my jacket was a huge step for me. It meant that people would look at me a little longer than normal, that they might engage me in conversation, and I am more the kind of person who wants to walk quietly through her life and not draw anyone’s attention for good or bad.

Wearing a button marked me, in a way, as some sort of social justice freak or religious nut. At least, that’s what I would have thought about someone wearing the button if that someone wasn’t me.

In truth, I want to call attention to injustice. I want to stand up and fight for things that matter. That is my heart. But I am not brave. Or courageous. Or loud. Some days I have to gather enough courage to walk into the grocery store (and then spend the rest of the day reading books to recharge from the emotional toll being in public takes on me.) I want you to care about things that are important but I don’t want you to think bad of me for caring about them.

What I learned from Lent is that there are parts of me that still have to die and be transformed. Parts of me I still need to sacrifice to God’s redemption.

Now that it is Easter, a season of celebration and feasting, a time of rejoicing for God’s kingdom has come to earth, it is easy to forget Lent. Those things I learned, those passionate feelings I felt, I could compartmentalize them into the 40 days of Lent and move on with my happy, comfortable life.

Or.

I could revisit and reflect and pray and learn more. The end of Lent doesn’t have to be the end of caring and justice and “on earth as it is in heaven” kind of living. It shouldn’t be the end, I think, but the beginning.

Lent reminds me that life is about more than me, that Jesus’ sacrifice was not for me alone, and that His redemption is for every day not just a few days or a single season.

I still don’t know what this means or looks like on a daily basis.

All I know is I don’t want to quit caring about prisoners because Lent is over.

I’m curious, does Lent carry over into Easter and the rest of the year for you? If so, how? If not, what would it look like for that to happen?

I’m asking myself the same questions.

STORIES OF EASTER: Remembering and telling so others will have joy {a synchroblog}

easter synchroblogThis week at the Convergent Books blog, various writers have been reflecting on the characters of the Easter story. Today, they’ve opened the topic to any blogger anywhere to write about a character in the Easter story and what their role can teach us today. To read other posts in the synchroblog, click here.

His letter begins with these words:

What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the Word of Life–and the life was manifested, and we have seen and testify and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was manifested to us–what we have seen and heard we proclaim to you also, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ. These things we write, so that our joy may be made complete. (1 John 1:1-4, NASB)

He is John, the apostle, the disciple whom Jesus loved, and here, he is adamant: We heard Him, saw Him with our eyes, touched Him with our hands. This message we spread, this Gospel we preach, we were eyewitnesses! And we want others to believe because we saw it!

He almost fades into the background of the Easter story. We see glimpses of him but he’s not the first one we think of, at least he’s not the first one I think of. There are the women and Judas and Peter and the guards and Pilate and the religious leaders and Joseph of Arimathea. The Easter story is full of colorful characters, each with their own part to play, each with much to teach us about this most holy of days.

And yet, I find myself drawn to John, the storyteller.

Several years ago in a Sunday School class, we watched a video series about John’s final days in Ephesus. In it, he was painted as an old man telling the stories of his days with Jesus to anyone who gathered. He lived the longest of any of the disciples and his account of Jesus’ life is different in almost every way than that of the other writers.

Suddenly, I had a whole new appreciation for John, who must have spent all those years telling and retelling the stories. I wondered what he must have thought when he finally began to write them down. It was his life’s work. Yet even he admits that the whole world couldn’t contain all the books that could be written about what Jesus did (John 21:25).

But back to Easter and the events leading up to it.

His account of what we  now call Holy Week begins in chapter 12 of his Gospel. Could he still hear the crowds shouting, “Hosanna!”? Could he feel the crowd pressing in, surrounding Jesus, their King who had come? “We didn’t understand at the time,” he says, “but later, we remembered.” Did he smile at their ignorance? How they thought Jesus was there to overthrow Rome when, in fact, His plan was so much greater?

He walks us through the Last Supper, providing details about the extent of Jesus’ love. Did he remember what he felt when Jesus washed his feet? Did the memory of Peter’s insistence that Jesus not wash his feet bring bittersweet thoughts of his companion and friend? Could he taste the bread and wine? Did he still wonder why none of them suspected Judas of betrayal?

I love John’s words for their attention to detail. From him we get stories and words and actions we don’t get anywhere else. He was an observer as well as a participant, and his time with Jesus changed him. How could he forget such an important time of his life?

Chapters 14, 15, 16 and 17 of John’s Gospel are almost entirely in red in my Bible, the words of Jesus highlighted to stand out. Here, John passes on teachings, some listed as favorites among pastors and leaders: the vine and the branches, the prayers of Jesus for his disciples, for the world. Years later, as he writes, does John think of the significance of those teachings? Does he realize he is the link from Jesus to the generations to come? Or does he write because he’s called to it? Because somebody has to or no one will know? Does he know that his words will outlive him?

He continues with two whole chapters on the crucifixion and the events leading up to it. Did he cry as he wrote those scenes? Was he exhausted reliving the drama from the garden to the cross to the tomb? Did he lean in to the grief of those days so that his readers, his listeners would understand just how awful this was? John would get a faraway look in his eyes as he spoke. I can imagine how the emotions would have choked him as he told the story. Read John 19 out loud. Slowly. As if you can see it happening. But not even that is close to what it must have been like for John to remember.

But remember he did. And speak, he did. And write, he did.

And then the tomb. Empty!

How his heart must have raced remembering what it was like to sprint to the tomb and find Jesus gone. And the joy of seeing Him alive! In the locked room. On the shore.

Story after story after story and John’s theme is the same: “these have been written so that you believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name.” (John 20:31)

What I learn from John is that he didn’t keep Easter to himself. He didn’t keep Jesus to himself. He spent his life telling the story, not so that he would have a bestselling book with his name on it but so that those who weren’t there, those who didn’t see, those who don’t know, might believe and have life.

We all have a story to tell about our time with Jesus. Who needs to know what we’ve experienced so they, too, can have life?

The one time I went to prison

On the outskirts of my hometown, on 400 acres of land sets an imposing building surrounded by barbed wire fencing.

It’s the largest medium security prison in Illinois, housing more than 2,000 adult men. It opened five years after I was born, so I can’t remember ever not knowing about it. It’s out of the way of regular traffic patterns, so if you don’t want to drive by it, you don’t have to. I’ve always thought it odd that the country club is on the same road, not even a mile away. Could two worlds be more different and yet so close in proximity?

Also not far from the prison is a neighborhood of low-income housing, built for the families who move to the area to be near their incarcerated loved ones.

The Dixon Correctional Center is on some of the most beautiful property in the county. A wooded bike path passes the backside of the property. Years ago, before it was a prison, it was a colony for epileptics, then an institution for the mentally ill and a school for people with developmental disabilities. I don’t know as much about its history as I’d like to, and I’ve maybe even gotten it wrong now. But I know that I feel sad and hopeless when I look at the building.

And I’m just on the outside.

“Want to go to prison with me?”

The man who asked was a friend and mentor, a Bible study leader who spent at least one Saturday a month teaching a Bible study in the prison. It was one of his favorite things to do, and he wanted me to go with him.

No.Yes.NO.Whynot?Okay.

That was what happened in my mind. I was working as a journalist and I almost never passed up an opportunity to do something I’d never done before. But go to prison? I didn’t know if I could do it, even if my friend was going to be there the whole time.

We met in the parking lot. I almost wet my pants just driving onto the property, certain that I’d mess something up and find myself in some kind of trouble. Because I was a good girl. I avoided trouble like contagious disease. I’d never even had a speeding ticket. The one time I’d had to go to detention in elementary school, I was physically sick about it.

Because I could do no wrong. So I thought.

But there I was. Entering a prison. Metal detector, pat down and all.

I was nervously excited. Maybe a little scared.

All these years later, I barely remember that day. But I know the fear faded. I was welcomed by the men who came for Bible study. They were genuinely glad to meet me and to see my friend. They had wisdom and experience to share. They were people. People who had made mistakes and were paying for those mistakes but people nonetheless.

Reading this book reminded me of that experience and reignited something in me. Something I’m still trying to identify.

Our church is partnering with another church during Lent to focus on injustice in the prison system. You can find out more here. I read the compact yesterday and the first day’s devotional, and I’m appalled at my ignorance. I have little firsthand knowledge of the injustice in the justice system. I know it’s not a perfect system, but there’s more to it than that.

What I appreciate about this Lenten compact is the emphasis on restorative justice, or giving convicted felons another chance at life outside of prison. It’s no easy road, from what I’ve read. In the book I referenced earlier, the author learned that women released from prison in Alabama are given $10, a polo shirt and pants, and a bus ticket back to the place where they committed the crime. And with that, they’re supposed to make a fresh start. Think even of movies like Les Miserables and The Shawshank Redemption. Those aren’t just stories. There’s truth in them.

That prison I mentioned earlier in my hometown? According to the Illinois Department of Corrections, it costs almost $24,000 a year on average per inmate to house them. To me, that ought to be serious motivation to examine how we rehabilitate, who we sentence and what happens when they leave prison. I absolutely understand it’s a complicated issue full of challenges I can’t even imagine.

But, can we do better?

Lent is a season of fasting and preparation for the death and resurrection of Jesus, who came to free us from the chains of death and sin.

Because we are all in prisons, some of them self-imposed, and He offers freedom to us all.

The Lenten Compact begins with readings in the psalms regarding confession of sin and appealing to God’s mercy.

Because we are sinners. And He is merciful.

And we who have been shown mercy are to show mercy.

I confess: this Lenten Compact made me uncomfortable at first. I already felt unprepared for Lent this year, like I hadn’t given it much thought, but maybe that’s okay. Maybe all I need to do is show up and let God lead me through the season, then take appropriate action. I have no idea what that will look like.

But I’ve already been to prison once, so who’s to say it won’t happen again?

Why I don’t hate Valentine’s Day (anymore)

I used to hate Valentine’s Day.

It was a subtle hatred. Well, frankly, it was driven by jealousy, so  maybe it wasn’t really hatred at all. I spent most of my Valentine’s Day single and without a “special someone.” I even wrote a column for the newspaper about how stupid I thought Valentine’s Day was. (I don’t think that was the actual theme. All I can remember is that I rallied the single ladies in our community before Beyonce’s song was even written.)

See, Valentine’s Day used to exaggerate all those lonely, inferior feelings I already struggled with daily. It felt like an exclusive holiday, and I hate being excluded. I didn’t want to be “out” just because I didn’t have a boyfriend. But rather than honestly deal with those feelings, I deflected my insecurities and gave passionate explanations for my feelings.

Love shouldn’t be limited to one day a year.

It’s a Hallmark holiday.

Flowers and candy are a waste of money.

I wouldn’t want a man to celebrate our love just because the calendar says so.

And on and on I went.

Then, 10 years ago, I fell in love. Or maybe love fell on me.

We weren’t dating yet when it happened, but I just knew. I knew that I loved this man, and I was going to be crushed if he didn’t love me back. But I was willing to let that happen because what I felt the day I realized I loved him was bigger than me. We were friends. Probably the best of friends. And I knew going forward that if he didn’t love me back, we couldn’t be friends anymore.

About two months after we started dating.

About two months after we started dating.

That’s storybook stuff, but I can still feel the weight of that realization today.

I loved him. Period. And I had no sure idea how he felt about me.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

Have you ever been asked that question? Ten years ago, I couldn’t have given a good answer. I’m not sure I could today either.

Ten years always seemed so far in the future. Yet, here it is. Like turning the page of a book.

I turned 26 that year. Funny, but it was the same year I started to see the possibilities for my writing beyond newspaper journalism. (That’s something to explore another day, I guess.)

My best friend had started dating a guy in our circle of four, and the fourth member of our group was about to head east for military training. But he gave me a present–a Care Bear I’ve loved nearly to death since then–and a promise, to call while we were apart for three weeks.

It was a glimmer of hope, a memory that still makes me smile. He’s always been good at gift-giving, and this was the first of many meaningful gifts.

He did call. We talked on the phone a couple of times while he was away, and I noticed that my world was grayer without him in it. Our gatherings lacked sparkle because he was absent. (He still lights up my world.)

When I took a week to attend a writers conference on the East Coast, I missed his call one night. I was devastated. I was surrounded by writers, some of whom I’d probably be awed by now if I went back and looked at the names. But this blooming love made me blind to any other experiences. This was all that mattered.

We’d spent weeks of our summers at a Bible camp near our hometown, and I first found community at a weekend retreat for the 20-something crowd years earlier. This retreat brought us back to the camp that May, after we’d both returned from our trips.

With some “divine intervention” we found ourselves seated next to each other on a couch for a viewing of The Princess Bride. (It was and is my favorite movie.) I was distracted by his closeness, unable to concentrate on the movie. His arm was resting on the back of the couch, and though it sounds cliche, he eventually got tired of that position and dropped it across my shoulders.

I can still hear the beating of my heart, the questions in my head: What is he doing? Is this what I think it is? Does he mean what I think he means? Is this for real? Am I dreaming?

We were friends. Were we now something more?

I wouldn’t have my answer that night. The movie ended. The spell was broken (so I thought) and we played board games until lights out. I didn’t sleep much that night. And I didn’t want to tell anyone else, afraid that if I did, I would find out I’d imagined it all.

Those fears played with me the next morning. I was sure he would tell me it was all a misunderstanding. That he hadn’t meant anything by it.

Because I was never the pursued one. I was always just a good friend. I was used to rejection. Expected it, almost.

Then he said we should take a walk after breakfast.

And we did. He told me how he felt, and even though I can’t remember the words exactly, I remember how my heart felt like it could fly out of my chest. He held my hand, and we returned from our walk as an “us.”

A year later, at the same camp, he asked me to marry him.

10 years us proposal 1

 10 years us proposal 2

10 years us proposal 3

I said, “yes.”

This will be our 10th Valentine’s Day as an “us,” the 7th as a married couple.

Not every year has been the happily ever after I dreamed of.

Some years have been worse than I ever imagined they could be.

But we still love each other.

And not every day brings the tingly toes and speedy heartbeats of those first days.

Most days reality is not at all like a fairytale dream.

But.

That’s why I no longer hate Valentine’s Day.

Because for a day, we tap into those earlier lovey-dovey feelings and remember what it was like.

Before kids.

Before unpaid bills.

Before marriage problems.

We remember why we fell in love and what it felt like.

If our marriage is like a fire, then most days it’s more like embers than flames. But for a day, we can fuel the embers with memories and keep the fire burning.

I’m no marriage expert. We don’t have it all figured out.

But if I’ve learned anything in 10 years it’s that the flame won’t keep burning on its own.

Ours was almost reduced to ashes once, and I never want to be there again.

So, I embrace Valentine’s Day, not because I want jewelry or candy or flowers or an expensive dinner out. Not because I think we HAVE TO celebrate or our relationship is doomed.

No. I embrace Valentine’s Day as a sacred pause. A time to remember. A celebration of joy. A day of gratitude.

I know it will be a hard day for some. For ones who’ve lost or never had or feel like they are losing.

And because of that, I say, that those of us who have love on Valentine’s Day ought to share it. Valentine’s Day need not be exclusive to those married, engaged or dating. Because love is more than that.

Whatever you do today, love others. And love well.