When you have a birthday

I woke up on the first day of my 37th year full before the day began.

This is not the norm for me.  On my birthday or any other day.

The weather promised to be perfect–sunny, 80 degrees, not too humid.

And the day was pregnant with promise.

Birthdays are, for me, a love-hate affair. I enjoy the celebration. I love cake and ice cream. But in recent years, my birthdays have been anti-climatic, to say the least. While my husband was in seminary, he almost always had finals the week of my birthday and May 4 would become like any other day. I got used to lowering (or abandoning) my expectations for the day. I’m not big on surprises, but a part of me has always wanted to feel special on my birthday.

That’s normal, right?

So, on Sunday night, knowing that Monday was packed full of meetings and a birthday celebration was going to be hard to squeeze in, I did something I rarely do.

I asked for what I wanted.

“It doesn’t matter what we do,” I said, as we finished up dinner. “But tomorrow, I’d like to do something special for my birthday.”

Rather than feel selfish or needy by that declaration, I felt grown-up and free.

Maybe that’s why Monday dawned with such hope. I was grateful before the day began for this life I’ve been gifted, with all its messes and miracles.

What happened throughout the day was icing on the proverbial cake. (There was actual cake, too.)

As my husband got up to make my coffee and breakfast for me and the kids, I read tweets from my brother, and opened an e-mail with a generous gift inside from him and his wife. Breakfast is my favorite meal, so it’s always a gift to have someone else make it. (And for it to not be cereal or toast. Egg sandwiches, in case you were curious.)

Phil and our son left to head to the grocery store to plan a special dinner, and the Facebook greetings rolled in from across the country and across the years of my life. I said, in reflecting on the day, that a Facebook birthday is like “This is your life.” College friends. Hometown friends. Online friends I’ve never met in person.

Some made the tears come, like this one from a pastor friend in Illinois:

Today, look back in awe at how God has shaped and led you; then look forward in anticipation of all that God will do to complete the beautiful work of art that is you. Experience God’s blessing on your birthday!

Look back. Look forward. Both together, not either or. A day before, I read this quote from Madeleine L’Engle, and it is fitting for birthdays:

madeleine quote

I have wanted to lose some of the ages I’ve been, but in my 37th year, I am increasingly grateful for the ways those years have shaped me.

When the guys returned, I headed out to my counseling appointment. Going to counseling on my birthday might not seem like a treat, but it’s becoming a valued part of my life and routine.

“Don’t cry too much on your birthday,” my husband said as I left because I have left a lot of tears in my counselor’s office. I did cry, but they were mostly happy tears because maybe for the first time in my life I love who I am and who I am becoming and I feel loved. By others. By God. By me.

I spent the afternoon with my son. We volunteered at the school library, which we hadn’t done for a couple of weeks. We enjoyed the outside weather. The porch is my favorite place in the spring/summer/fall. I read. I tended my small collection of plants, including a hanging basket of flowers that arrived while I was gone. A sweet couple from church dropped them off just to say “thanks.” I continued to read the messages of well wishes. I talked to my grandparents. I picked up my daughter from the bus.

And I watched my husband prepare a birthday feast for dinner. He grilled some of my favorites: bell peppers, shrimp, steak. Paired with rice it was a satisfying and special meal, topped off with a moose tracks ice cream cake. The day would have been perfect without it, but I’m glad I said something the day before.

We headed off to church for meetings my husband and I lead, once again grateful that we are part of a community of faith that recognizes and values our gifts and lets us use them.

We fell into bed exhausted and my heart was fuller than it had been when I woke up. I can’t think of a better way to have spent my birthday than being with people I love, doing ordinary things, celebrating life and health. It was extraordinary in its ordinariness.

This morning it was a little harder to get out of bed, but more birthday wishes trickled in, including a video from our 3-year-old nephew. In the middle of singing “Happy birthday,” he asked his mom if they could come to our house and share cake. We are too many miles apart for that, but the sentiment warms my heart.

We still have cake, and a birthday date night scheduled for Friday, but for all intents and purposes, the celebration is over.

The gratitude continues, though, and my hope for the year to come is to find these ordinary graces in my life no matter the day.

I am 37, and it is good to be alive.

For the days when hope is too hard {and a preview of A.D. The Bible Continues}

So, it’s Holy Week, and a lot of people are writing about it, and I’m not sure I have anything meaningful to say about it. In fact, sometimes, I’m not sure what to do with Holy Week. I’m still relatively new to the church calendar and its seasons and I always want Lent and Holy Week to be special and sacred and yet I often fail to plan for either one.

I find myself wondering during Holy Week why we continue to tell the story of these days. Why we commemorate Good Friday when we know how it ends on Easter. And I know there is purpose in the telling and telling again because we forget and we need to pause and remember. But there always seems to be a lot of pressure to tell the story in a new way, to host an event or draw a crowd. Easter is a BIG DEAL for Christians and churches and it lasts far beyond Sunday morning, though I forget that, too.

In the midst of regular life–school and work and grocery shopping and laundry–Holy Week breaks in.

It’s a curious story from start to finish. The shouts of “hosanna.” The washing of feet. The breaking of bread. The talk of a new covenant. The betrayal. The trial. The crucifixion and death. The hopelessness and the waiting. The miraculous resurrection. It’s an emotional roller coaster when you think about how it played out the first time.

It helps me to remember that life is like that, too. Expectations. Thrills. Disappointments. Death of dreams. Questions and doubts. Miracles. Unimaginable newness.

I have to look hard in the Gospels to find those emotions and themes. Sometimes the story is too familiar.

So, I’m grateful when creative people can take familiar stories and rethink them. I’ve mentioned this before with biblical fiction books. And we recently had the chance to visit Sight and Sound Theatre in Lancaster to see Moses on stage. I come away from these experiences with a better understanding of biblical times.

And it happened again this week when I received the chance to watch the first episode of the upcoming TV series “A.D. The Bible Continues” through a perk from Klout.

Now, I missed the previous TV series about the Bible, but I heard great things about it. This is the continuation from Mark Burnett, Roma Downey and company, and while I was a bit skeptical (because sometimes the Bible on the big screen is cheesy or overly dramatic or just terribly done), I have to say that if the first episode is an indicator, then this will be a good series. The show premieres on Sunday on NBC, which is not coincidental timing, I’m sure, being that it is Easter, but the televised story begins on Good Friday.

I almost wish you could watch it before Sunday because the horror, shame and despair of Good Friday and the following day come through. The disciples are beyond disappointed. Confused. Unable to hope even when Mary begs them to wait at least three days before giving up. It is powerful and beautiful. I love seeing historical settings as they might have been. They help me to fill in the details the Bible leaves out and give me access to a world I otherwise couldn’t enter.

Like the clothing the elite women (Pilate’s wife and the High Priest’s wife) wear. It’s colorful and extravagant, almost reminiscent of medieval clothing. I forget that the rich and powerful would dress differently than the others, even in a culture from 2,000 years ago. The diversity of characters reminds me that it was a diverse culture. Not primarily Caucasian. And not all young or old. Peter and John and mother Mary and Mary Magdalene all look different than I would have imagined them. And that’s a good thing.

And the words that aren’t recorded in the Bible give depth to the characters. One line that sticks out to me is one Peter says the day after Jesus is crucified.

What difference does any of this now make that he’s dead?

This is the question I must ask myself. What difference does Jesus’ death make? And what difference does His resurrection make? I look forward to watching the second episode because the first ends on a hopeful note but doesn’t take us all the way there.

Hope is hard sometimes, especially when all we see is death and chaos. I can hardly read news stories or scroll through Facebook without feeling like the world is one super messed up place and what does my faith matter anyway? What difference does it make?

Holy Week reminds me that despair is not the end of the story. That hope is hard when you don’t know the ending. But hope and love and life are coming and I can be a part of that story.

I don’t know where this series is going to go, but I know from reading the New Testament that the resurrection doesn’t mean happily ever after, either. If anything, the disciples’ lives become more difficult. But because they have a reason, because they see the difference Jesus’ life and death and resurrection make, they no longer live without hope.

That is why we tell and retell the story. Because we live in a world without a lot of hope. And we who believe Christ died and Christ is risen are hope-bearers in this world.

Hope, even when it’s hard, makes all the difference.

For more about the TV series, go to http://www.nbc.com/ad-the-bible-continues.

A guide to surviving Valentine’s Day

I love a good fairytale. A happily-ever-after romance. Pretty sure I always have.

But life is not always happily-ever-after. Even great marriages have their low points. And all relationships have flaws.

I haven’t been the hugest fan of Valentine’s Day, although it has its charms. (Conversation hearts, anyone?)

love

I’ve been single, separated by war, and married on Valentine’s Day, and none of those statuses made it any easier to stomach. Because sometimes Valentine’s Day makes us think that love has to be perfect to be worth it. Or that romantic love is all there is to life.

That it falls on a weekend this year somehow intensifies the feelings about this holiday. (I use the term loosely.) Whether you’re single and happy, single and miserable, attached and blissful, attached and unhappy, married with or without children, living your marriage dreams or slogging through a nightmare, I want you to survive Valentine’s Day. I want you to know that love is work and relationships are hard and it’s okay.

A few years ago I blogged a list of realistic love songs about marriage.

I want to add to that list with songs, books and articles that will make your situation, whatever it is, feel normal on Valentine’s Day. Few of us live a fairytale every day, and especially on Valentine’s Day, it’s good to be reminded of love in all seasons of life. Feel free to add your own.

My friend Courtney wrote this book called Paper Hearts. And while it might look like a lovey-dovey Valentine’s Day romance, it is so much more. You can read my full review, and I think you’ll be encouraged by the story. It is what real love is like. (Also, check out the video that goes with it.)

Grab a tissue to watch this Casting Crowns video of their song, “Broken Together.” That whole idea of “you complete me” is good for the movies, but this song tells a much more realistic story.

Specific to Valentine’s Day, here’s a great reminder that our day doesn’t have to be perfect to be good: The One True Thing About the Perfect Valentine’s Date by Kelly Flanagan.

Still have those tissues? Check out the story of Ian & Larissa Murphy in their book Eight Twenty Eight or you can watch some videos and read some articles about them here. A humbling story of sacrificial love and the goodness of God.

And if you have a lot of garbage in your relationship or your past, check out this post by Gary Thomas, which encourages us that our broken pieces can turn into beautiful windows.

So, there you have it. My guide to surviving Valentine’s Day. Let me know what you think if you check out any of these resources. And please, add others in the comments section!

You don’t have to love Valentine’s Day to love this story: Review of Paper Hearts by Courtney Walsh

I sometimes have a love-hate relationship with Valentine’s Day, even as a married woman. There’s a lot of pressure on that one day, and not every February 14 has been memorable or spectacular in my history. Though I still love a good happily-ever-after story, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve found myself drawn more to songs and stories that present a more realistic version of love and relationships.

Stuff like this:

But the very best love stories are the ones that are flawed and full of forgiveness and pain and joy and challenges and happiness. All these things make up a love story.

paper heartsThat’s a line from Paper Hearts by Courtney Walsh, which is–and isn’t–a Valentine’s Day story. (Disclaimer: I received a free copy of the book from the Tyndale Blog Network in exchange for my review.)

Here’s a summary:

Abigail Pressman lives in a town that is fascinated by love. Founded by a her ancestors whose love story is legendary, Loves Park, Colorado, capitalizes on its name, drawing tourists year-round, all in the name of love. Abigail runs a local bookstore and, to her mother’s disappointment, is single with a waning interest in dating. Reluctantly resolved to remain single and expand her business, Abigail’s plans are thrown into disarray when Dr. Jacob Willoughby arrives in town and buys the building that houses her bookstore. With his own plans to rebuild his life and practice in the other half of the building, Jacob is unprepared for the conflict his plans bring to the town. When Abigail is drafted into a club that gathers in her store and stamps mail with the town’s romantic postmark, she discovers a love story that is both touching and tragic in the form of paper hearts a couple writes to each other each Valentine’s Day. As she uncovers their story through the hearts, her beliefs about love are challenged and her own chance at happily ever after emerges.

This is a story about love, yes, but it’s also a story about dreams, and it’s a novel forged from the author’s own journey of dreams crushed and dreams realized. (You can find that story on her blog.) It’s about happily ever after, in a way, but about how sometimes you have to walk through some not-so-happy days to get there.

It’s a realistic picture of love in real life–not always pretty or tidy but ugly and messy and beautiful all at the same time. Abigail and Jacob were such realistic characters I could picture their actions and words as if they were flesh and blood people. I could see this as a Hallmark or Lifetime movie (please-oh-please producer type people, check this one out!).

And the whole angle of the paper hearts–of creating a tradition where you write what you love about the other person on hearts throughout the year and then reveal them to each other on Valentine’s Day–is such a sweet and creative idea. It’s the kind of thing you can take from this book and apply to life. (Fiction can do that!)

So, if you aren’t yet in love with the idea of this book, then check out this video, which is all kinds of adorable (and real):

And catch up with Courtney on her website or on Facebook.

If this is your introduction to her work, then you also should check out her three previous books: A Sweethaven Summer, A Sweethaven Homecoming, and A Sweethaven Christmas.

When what I need is less not more

“Mommy, what did you get for Christmas?”

We were unpacking our suitcases and the boxes full of presents we’d carried with us to and from a visit to family in the Midwest over the Christmas and New Year holiday. My 5-year-old son had a long list of answers to this question for himself, as did his sister. I answered him honestly.

“That pretty necklace from Daddy. Time with family. A little bit of money. A coffee mug.” I listed a few things of importance, not wanting to dwell on what I did or didn’t get at Christmas. Sometimes, it’s hard, even as an adult, to remember that the holiday isn’t about gifts and getting.

“And what else?”

I think I told him that I didn’t need anything else, that all of those things were enough. I hope that somewhere in his preschool mind he sees that it’s okay to not get at Christmas.

Our Christmas plans were different this year. We took an airplane to visit family. We spent time in Colorado with family. The kids and I stayed extra time while my husband returned to our home to work.

And one thing people asked us was: “So, did you take all the presents with you?”

Today, I’m blogging over at Putting on the New. You can read the rest of this post here.

What the new year is and isn’t

It snuck up on me this year, New Year’s Eve, the new year, like an old friend on tiptoes waiting to cover my eyes and let me guess who was standing behind me. I had a sense it was coming, but still, it surprised me.

It’s not that I forgot its coming. I just lacked the necessary anticipation.

I spent New Year’s Eve talking to my husband by phone, seeking a connection with God, hanging out with my kids and my parents in front of the TV, watching Taylor Swift “Shake It Off” in 30-degree weather in Times Square.

There was no big to-do. I’m not much for parties or large gatherings and frankly did not have the energy for any kind of effort toward special for New Year’s Eve.

I’ve barely had time to reflect on 2014 and look ahead to 2015, and I wonder if I’m already setting myself up for failure in the year ahead.

Liane Metzler / Creative Commons / via unsplash

Liane Metzler / Creative Commons / via unsplash

Doesn’t the new year require a plan? Goals? Checklists?

I have few of those things in mind or on paper, and I have the feeling of being late or behind before the year begins.

As I considered the year ahead, what may or may not happen, I journaled these words:

A new year brings so many hopes and fears and dreams and expectations. Let me not give too much weight to a single day, month, moment or year. Let me see it for what it is–a part of the whole. A piece of something bigger. One chapter in the story. One verse in the song.

And then I read Psalm 90, a perfectly appropriate reading for New Year’s Eve (thank you, Book of Common Prayer). I’d encourage you to read the whole thing but here are the words that give me strength and hope for a new year.

You have been our refuge from one generation to another.

From age to age you are God.

We bring our years to an end like a sigh.

Teach us to number our days.

Make us glad by the measure of the days that you afflicted us and the years in which we suffered adversity.

Prosper the work of our hands.

I hate how much pressure we put on a year at its beginning. I believe in fresh starts and chasing dreams and goals that scare you a little, but I’m learning that those things often take more time than we want them to and to put all our hopes in the start of one year is to maybe set ourselves up for disappointment.

I want 2015 to be different. I want to be different in 2015. But I will not let one year of my life–good or bad–define the rest of my years. I will choose to see how each new year builds on the last. How even the hard times are working toward something better and good. I will not give up when a year is full of more loss than gain.

And I won’t rest on the security of good days, imagining them to be the only way from here on out.

2015 is just another year.

You can start fresh.

You can rebuild.

You can look up.

You can leave 2014 behind.

You can hope, dream, expect.

But remember that what happens this year is one small part of something bigger: your entire life.

What happened in 2014 doesn’t define you.

What’s coming in 2015 won’t either.

You are loved by a Creator who is writing your story, one chapter at a time.

Hang on till the end.

The two ways people react to our upcoming holiday plans

It all started with a death in the family. And a secret prayer to be able to spend more time with my extended relatives.

Sometime around Thanksgiving every year, my husband and I sit down and think about our travel plans for Christmas. He works in a restaurant with limited time off and the rest of our family lives 800 miles away, so going home for Christmas is never a simple matter. As it was shaping up this year, we were going to get about five days in Illinois with our families. Enough time to drive for a whole day, celebrate some Christmases and drive for another whole day.

I’ve been missing my family, thus the secret prayer to find a way to spend more time with them. The kids have a long school break and my husband was the only one who needed to be back at a certain time. (It was a secret prayer because I don’t like sounding disappointed by our circumstances. After all, I married him with full knowledge that one day we would live in Pennsylvania. I just didn’t anticipate how hard it would be to be so far away from everyone else.)

Then my uncle, who lives in Colorado, died, and we started asking different questions.

Are we going to Colorado?

Who is going to Colorado?

When are we going to Colorado?

How are we getting there?

My uncle was the sort of person who didn’t want people to make a fuss, so he wanted no funeral service, only to be cremated and have his ashes scattered in the mountains (an impossibility in the winter months).

But the rest of us need closure and to be together, so the planning began. During the holiday break, when several family members have time off because they work for school districts, a trip to Colorado would happen.

The catch? Several of those family members do not like to fly, so this would be a road trip.

Unwilling to subject ourselves to a possible 16-hour drive with a day off followed by another possible 16-hour drive (did you know Denver is 1,500 miles from where we live in Pennsylvania?!?), my husband suggested something crazy. (At least it sounded crazy to me.)

“Why don’t we fly home?”

We have lived in Pennsylvania for more than six years and have never flown back to Illinois. Mainly because it’s expensive and not perfectly convenient. Since there are four of us, we still need a vehicle in Illinois, so loading up the van and driving for a day or overnight has always been the preferred option.

Until now.

After my initial shock and near-refusal, the idea grew on me. We would arrive in Illinois considerably fresher and certainly earlier than if we drove, and because we would only be in our hometown area for a few days, not having our own vehicle isn’t too much of an issue.

So plans came together. We booked tickets. We arranged flights and school and work schedules.

And that is only part of the adventure.

Forrest Cavale | Creative Commons | via unsplash

Forrest Cavale | Creative Commons | via unsplash

The second leg of our Christmas vacation involves four generations of family in an RV driving across the Midwest Plains to Denver for a long weekend of grieving, celebrating and being together. It also involves one of our particular foursome flying back to Pennsylvania from Denver so he can return to work and the rest of us spending a few extra days in Illinois with a yet-to-be-determined rendezvous somewhere between Illinois and Pennsylvania.

If you’re still with me, you’re probably thinking one of two things. I know this, not because I’m a mind reader, but because every person I’ve told this plan to has had one of these two reactions and nothing in-between.

One reaction is: “That’s awesome! You guys are going to have so much fun! What an adventure! I’ve always wanted to do that!”

The other is: “Wow. That sounds … interesting. I’ll pray for you.”

Honestly, I waver between both of those feelings–excitement and terror. Because, let’s face it, this could be the most awesome thing to ever happen to our family or it could be a total disaster. (In reality, it will probably have moments of both). Either way, this will be one of our most memorable holidays ever.

And that’s worth something.

So, I can’t promise you a bunch of blog posts from the road because I’m not exactly sure what all we’re taking with us. But, if you’re interested in following along the adventure on Facebook, Twitter and/or Instagram, I’m going to use the hashtag #XCountryXmas for all travel related posts. (You can find me on Goodreads to see all the books I read while we travel, too.) I will be writing down memorable quotes, journaling my thoughts and taking pictures along the way, hoping to bring you a share of our memories in the new year.

And just to give you a teaser, here’s the first memorable quote for the trip to come.

Me: Izzy, I e-mailed you teacher today and she said to have a good trip and that you were excited.

Izzy (the first-grader): Yeah, and I might even see the Platte River.

Me: How do you know about the Platte River?

Izzy: My teacher told me. It’s in Nebraska. I can’t wait to go through Nebraska.

Me: I think you’re going to be disappointed. (No offense to Nebraska.)

To epic road trips and beyond! (And Merry Christmas, Happy New Year and all that jazz!)