Finding Out Thirty Is Not A Magical Number

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My birthday party came and went like a whirl of expectations and anticipation and here I am, three months later, and I am making the shocking discovery that turning thirty really was just another birthday.

And I feel the need to put a disclaimer here that I am not being ungrateful; in fact, I am extremely grateful for each day that I wake anew and am given new mercies and a new chance to live this life. I know the fragility of life, have seen it slip away with the sick and be stripped away in shocking moments and felt it bleed away from my own womb. So when I say that thirty is just another birthday, I say it with no indignation or ingratitude, but rather with a penitent heart.

I had bought into the lie that there is an unspoken magic about turning thirty. Your twenties are for figuring out life and making the stupid mistakes and struggling with who you are becoming and striving to become. But when you turn thirty- the magic number- your life will be figured out, you will own who you are, and things are more a breeze than a storm.

Smoke and mirrors are the only magic in that concept.

I had looked forward to turning thirty, for that inner confidence to suddenly spring up and out and I would no longer have these insecurities I struggle with each day. I would be a better parent with more experience, a more “mature” friend, and someone who finally had her stuff together. This dream was naivety at its finest.

What I really learned when I turned thirty is that the number is not the issue or the solution. The growth leading up to a new year, the experiences learned from, the life lived, is where the change comes from. Sounds obvious, but I fear at times I was so hoping that thirty would change me I may have missed where my growth happened.

So I have spent the last few months doing some introspection. I may still be in college, but I am close to fulfilling that dream. I may still not have my license as a counselor, but I am working toward it and have gained so much experience and knowledge on how to be a better counselor along the way. Most of my children are out of the toddler stage and 99.99% of the time, everyone gets to sleep the whole night through. I have done many things I only dreamed of; I wrote a book, went to Ecuador to visit my sponsor child, attended a conference I thought would never happen, conquered my anxiety to drive alone six hours away from home to a place I had never been for a retreat, made new friends, kept old ones, birthed four beautiful children. I have laughed and cried more times than I can count and have watched God move in amazing ways.

And while I don’t think I am anywhere near close to getting it all together and having the confidence of a superstar, I do know this: thirty’s magic lies in its ability to cause self-reflection. And here is what I also know: all that longing to be “an adult” whose life was on the “right track,” made me realize how much more I cannot depend on myself.  I cannot depend on myself to be humble or confident or un-riddled by anxiety or be fearless. Every day, my hope for change lies in Christ. Every day, my need for Him grows as I learn to not depend on myself and my abilities but rather to seek Him out, find His guidance in His Word, and heed His gentle whispers to my heart.  All the things I listed as accomplished? Only by His blessing and strength. I pray when I think I may start getting it all together, I would run to Him, because I know His strength is what carries me, His love is what helps me endure, and His goodness is the only reason I have had these thirty years and however many more He gives.

Thirty was a good birthday. It was celebrated with friends and family and two cakes. It may not have been magical in the sense I first thought, but it was clarifying. And that is a good gift. No more pressure to have it together, to overcome these personal hurdles. Just ever more seeking God and letting His truth change me. His Son was the most precious gift, whether you are turning five or thirty or eighty. And because of Him, I know that this year will be good. Because He is good. And He loves me. No magic, just truth, but that is what I need. So here’s to thirty, in all its non-magical glory, and to running the race well in this life, knowing Christ will continue to work in me His good work until it is finished.

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To Meet Your Sponsor Child

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She was the reason I traveled to Ecuador. Now, here was the moment I was going to finally meet the young girl whom I had been writing to for almost five years, whose picture on my bookmark I had prayed over, who had asked me frequently, “Will you come visit me?”

They were calling our names one at a time and I tried to stay focused. I did not want to be put on the spot, to be called in front of all those people. I could not look to my side, as other sponsors became emotional. I could not look at the woman in front of me, who had been a sponsor to a girl for seventeen years and was finally meeting her face-to-face. I could not look beyond the doorway that led to the meeting room where a sea of faces sat at multiple tables, each one waiting to meet their sponsor.

I was called third, and I quickly stepped through the door and tried to look over all the faces to where my girl was seated. She was standing up smiling shyly, but her mother was waving enthusiastically and I knew where I needed to go. I walked toward her table and I immediately forgot about all the other people in the room, whether or not they were watching, and tried to overcome my nerves by sheer willpower. Xiomara, the almost thirteen year old girl I have wrote letters to for years, stood almost at my height, smiled and hugged me, then sat across the table from me. Her mother sat between her and her tutor, the translator to my right. We all introduced ourselves and then Xiomara’s tutor offered to switch seats so Xiomara could sit next to me. She seemed a little reluctant but agreed. We both sat there, trying to think of what to say. Not being one that is very good at small talk, I looked at my translator for help.

Awkward questions and answers ensued, with simple responses. I learned that this was her first time in the city, and with a city as large as Quito I imagine it was all so overwhelming.  The people at Compassion had created a party setting; we danced and had our faces painted and she even convinced me to go on the stage and do the dancing with her. In front of everyone. But it was what she wanted so I went up there and flailed my arms like a chicken, rode an imaginary bike, and did all sorts of silly dances. Her smile was so bright.

The food came and all three of them sat there, seeming unsure as to how to proceed. I joked and told them I thought the dinner was too fancy, to which they grinned and said, “Yes, we don’t want to eat it, it is so pretty.”  After dinner she said she was bored. Initially I was crushed, but through some further translation I learned she had never been away from her many brothers and sisters and friends and it was more that she was unsure how to act/missing them. We went to the fun photo booth and took pictures, which made her smile again. The night quickly passed and then it was time to say good-bye until morning.

The next day we met at a nice country club on the edge of Quito. We put on our sunscreen and bug spray, waiting for the kids and their families. Xiomara’s mother again welcomed me with a huge grin and an even bigger hug; her tutor hugged and pecked me on the cheek hello. Xiomara gave me a side hug, quick and then stepped away. With the aid of the translator I told her of the things we could do and her eyes lit up when she heard about the pool. She said she only ever swam in a river and could not wait to get in the pool. So after a quiet snack where conversations were still forced we went to the pool.

It was like she came alive. She laughed and squealed and splashed and laughed some more. She wanted to race me, wanted me to drag her on the float, wanted to go down the slide with her hands in the air screaming and then begged me to do the same. She talked about her home and her family and swimming in the river and how she never wanted to leave the pool. She laughed at our caps we had to wear in the water and how funny our heads looked. She touched my arm and laughed again at how pale I was compared to her deep brown skin, pointing at my burning shoulders. She scolded me like an old mother, telling me to put more sunscreen on as we were “closer to the sun” in the higher elevation.

Paddle boating was next and the pedals turned with a jerky motion that required quite a bit of effort. When we got around the loop she asked to go again and I forced my numb and burning legs to go around once more. We raced another boat and her competitive side shone through.

Lunch and then gifts. She became reserved once more, but as she opened her gifts she hugged me many times. And then she said she was going to draw me a picture with her new colored pencils and paper. So we sat in the sun and she drew while her mother joked and laughed with us and intermittently joined others in a game of Frisbee, which is not common there. She drew me a picture of Quito, and I watched her quiet focus and learned of the award she won in school for her artwork.

Before we knew it, it was time to say good-bye. We prayed for each other, took a group photo, and gave one last hug. She tried to play it cool, averting her eyes but hugging me tightly and saying she hoped I came back soon. Then her mother embraced me, the joyful, joking woman now reduced to tears as she emphatically grabbed my hand and said, “Please don’t ever stop praying for Xiomara. Please, please don’t ever stop. Thank you for all that you do.”

The sky rumbled and threatened to rip open and pour its contents down on us, but we lingered a moment more before they were ushered to their bus. I held my new picture in my hand, smiling at the childlike innocence of a city portrayed there.  I got on the bus designated for the sponsors, sat next to my friend and we exchanged bits of stories here and there of what we had done that day and then grew quiet as we allowed the day to process and settle in our minds and hearts.

Nine days we had waited to meet our sponsors. Nine days the country of Ecuador weaved stories and lessons and beautiful people into our hearts and lives. Meeting our children at the end of the trip was the crowning moment, and I would do it all again in a heartbeat. Even now, two months later, my heart longs to return and I plan to keep my promise to Xiomara and see her again. And while I wait, I keep the memories of her smile and laughter close to my heart, and pray for her always, just as I promised her mother.

*If you are interested in sponsoring a child, please visit http://www.compassion.com

Meeting Samantha

Her name was Samantha. We met her earlier with her little boy, David, playing among the throng of women and children at the Child Survival Program. Young and timid, she did not say much as our small group gathered together to accompany her to her house. We climbed into the small pick-up truck, loaded up with a bag of rice and other groceries for her and her family, and made our way across the dirt and cobbled roads, further up the mountain in her small village outside of Quito. We stopped beside a house and climbed out. She informed us through the translator that this was not her house but that the truck could go no further. We grabbed the groceries and rice and followed her down a small but steep path to her home. All around us were breathtaking views of the mountains of Ecuador; I mentioned how beautiful of a place it was where she lived and after it was translated she kind of snorted. She carried David in her arms, the path too steep for his 14 month old legs to travel. Carefully we made our way down the side of the mountain to her home. We stepped in to a shaded room that contained a bunk bed, a small kitchen counter with a sink and oven, and a fridge that may or may not have been working. A small room to the side was the only private bedroom where her brother-in-law slept. Random objects and places to store clothes, a few pictures on the wall; all her life possessions in that dirt floor room she called her home. Later I realized there was no bathroom but had not think to ask, nor if the water ran in the pipes to the sink.

She told us about her life: 19 years old and her husband 18, she spent every day at home with her David while her husband was often gone looking for work. The house was not hers but borrowed from a family member. It shared a wall with another home of equal size where a cousin lived. She explained how five of them lived there in this one room.

And then she asked through our translator, “I know it is small, but what do you think of my home?”

Her translated question hung in the silence that followed as my friend and I looked around, trying to form the words that would be both encouraging and true.

How do you say to a person that their home is nice when the electricity does not always work? How do you say it is lovely when the chances of the rain leaking through the roof are high and the home she lives in is smaller than any apartment where you have lived? How do you tell her that her life and home are good when the poverty screams from the dirt floors and the worn shoes and the empty cabinets?

We told her we were thankful that she allowed us to come and share her home, that her hospitality was appreciated. We made a comment about the heart painted above the stove, of how we could tell she loved her family. We dodged the question with our meager attempts to encourage. It was not the first time either one of us had been to a home like hers, but it was the first we had been asked our thoughts on it.

She asked us to pray for a bigger home, for her husband to get a good job, and for her son to grow healthy. She had concerns about his lack of walking and wanted only the best for him. We prayed and explained to her the different groceries we had brought. She thanked us graciously, never averting her eyes.

Samantha knew her circumstances. She was not ashamed but rather practical in how she spoke about her circumstances. She had hope that things would become different. Her willingness to bring us into her home, to help us understand her life and her way of living, was humbling. With a house that could fit in my living room, she made room for us to enter in. In a humbling moment I realized how inhospitable I had become, how little I invited people in to my own home. Whether out of fear of judgment or lack of approval, worry that my children would be too rambunctious, or that the meal I cooked would be unsatisfactory, I have allowed my own insecurities to prevent the opening of my home. And there I stood with Samantha and David, the translator and one of the counselors from the program, and my friend, looking around and thinking, It is not the home that is inviting, but the heart.

When your heart is open, the guest will feel welcomed, as if they belong there. When you are real with what you have, not trying to cover up imperfections, the relations will blossom.

This was the lesson of hospitality I learned in Ecuador. Every experience, from the translators and trip guides, to the people like Samantha who invited us into their homes, to the children we played with at the programs, showed me that an open heart and love for God is the key to a hospitable home and heart. And while it does not solve the very real problems that these people face, I can’t help but think it eases the burden to know they do not face them alone. There is hope for change. There is chance for change. And there is always the God who moves mountains among them, keeping their hearts soft amidst hard circumstances and orchestrating moments like the ones we shared to bring about that change. And it starts with more open hearts.

 

Lessons From the Jungle

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I asked the question and immediately after it was translated I regretted it. His entire countenance fell; his shoulders slumped, his smile faded, and he turned his head to the side in shame and sadness. My heart was wrecked by the breaking of his. I felt my own face flush and I looked over at his mother, who wore a pained smile as she held the smallest of her dozen children. There was a mumbling of interchange, words spoken in a tongue foreign to me but I knew what they meant: I had caused more sadness for this 14 year old boy with my one simple inquiry. I had asked him, “Do you hear from your sponsor?”

As he wiped away tears under the tall structure of his house where we gathered, where we had come by bus and canoe and truck to meet him and his village, our translator told us his story.

“He has had three sponsors and never received a letter.”

“Not one?”

“Not one. And he wonders if he should even write anymore.”

It took everything in me not to leap forward, to envelop him in a hug and weep with him. Still I wonder if I should have.

We told him it was not his fault, that he should feel no shame. My friend said that sometimes sponsors don’t know what to say or are afraid of saying the wrong thing. I told him to tell his sponsor he wants to hear from them. All rang hollow in the wake of his breaking heart.

His heart. His precious heart that longed and hoped for a letter also beats with a murmur. When we were leaving, we prayed for his heart, for his health, and for his family. And he stood there, surrounded by people who love him but what he wanted was the love from across the ocean, on the other end of the letters he faithfully sends.

When I first signed up for this trip it was mainly to see the young girl I sponsor through Compassion International. That day was everything and more, and I know it meant the world to her just as it meant the world to me. But while that meant the world, this boy with the murmuring broken heart changed my world.

It was stressed over and over and over and over again on the trip: the letters from the sponsors mean the most. And I was (and am) the imperfect sponsor who sent letters intermittently and would forget a month or two and question, Does she really care?

But the shame this boy felt, wondering what fault of his causes his friends to gather with excitement each month as the sponsor letters are distributed while he remained ever hopeful but ever cautious that his name would not be called- this answered my question. No letter came for him. Month after month, year after year. One sponsor. Then another. Then another. Silence.

 

The letters are important.

 

There is no knowing why his sponsors did not write, and there is no blame-placing here. His story- and many other children just like him- remind me of my own lacking as a sponsor and what I need to do to do better.

And I see how God works all things for good for those who love Him later that evening when our group reconvenes to discuss the events of the day. We tell the story of this boy and his family and how we longed to do something. And then we discover that through Compassion we can write to a child who does not hear from his or her sponsor. Eagerly I get his information, and I go to my room and pray and cry and thank God for this little boy. The following week I am plunged back into the daily routines and expectations of my life at home but I make sure to place that call and get his name on my list so I can write to him.

I sit at the computer, and the doubts unfold. What if he doesn’t want to write to me? What if he thinks I am doing this because I feel sorry for him? Do I just feel sorry for him? What do I even say?

And I remember: The letters are so important.

I say a prayer for him, for his sponsor, who may have sat in this same position and let the what ifs keep them from writing, and I pray for the words to come. And then I begin:

Dear —-,

 

The letters are so important.

 

*If you are interested in sponsoring a child or learning more about Compassion, please visit http://www.compassion.com *

 

Grace Unfurling

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I don’t like waiting. I don’t like the feeling of something possibly unknown springing on me and causing me to change plans and directions. I don’t like the possibility that in all that time waiting the end result is going to be the one thing I don’t want. The wrong answer. Disappointment. Defeat.

Waiting feels a lot like stumbling around in the darkness. You are fumbling, trying to grasp at a solution, and yet you cannot resolve it on your own. Eventually you admit defeat and wait for help to come along and take whatever out you can get.

Deep recesses of my heart have been waiting, holding secret wants and desires that are too fragile to place in the light. Like seeds waiting to germinate, they bury deep within my heart and hold fast to the darkness of waiting. Sometimes these dreams and desires feel forgotten, left alone to fend for themselves. Further back they push, further away from the light of manifestation. All too often it is my own doing that pushes them further away, questioning what I have to offer in these seedlings, these pocketed dreams that hold all the potential in the world if I just went for it. But instead I shamefully leave them alone, keep them to themselves in the dark.

One dream was to go to Ecuador to visit the young girl I sponsor through Compassion International. This dream began the moment I started to sponsor her four years ago, but I always thought it was something others did. Never me.

Fast forward to two years ago and I thought and prayed more about it and thought, I should go. I had every intention of going in 2016, but plans went a different way and I was not able to go. I tried to shrug it off and weakly said Next year. I didn’t really believe it. The dream pushed further back into the “Someday” pile.

Yet looking back I know that if I had gone last year, things would have been a whole lot different. Probably for the worse. It’s no secret that I have dealt with anxiety and the culmination of this over the years led to physical manifestations of it. This in turn led to worry and more anxiety. I had a few panic attacks, a few meltdowns, a few moments where I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I saw a doctor and was given medication that made it worse, not better. I sought out holistic care and the physical ailments decreased. If I had been in Ecuador while all this was occurring, there is no doubt things would have gotten worse.

My dream for adventure had been substituted with dreams of a normal life. And not all days were bad; the days I could keep my mind of it and do other things helped tremendously. But I had allowed fear to condition my mind to default to worry instead of hope. My dreams felt altogether alone.

But-

They were never really alone.

Hope was in the dark. Hope whispered the encouraging words, Keep going. Keep pushing. Like the voice calling Lazarus forth, my desires were awakened again, renewed by the Word and Truth and pushed forward into the light. Hope pressesd against the barriers of confidence draining and fear- feeding doubts. It pushed back, pushed up, and pushed out.

Small doses. Small steps.

A year later and I am on the cusp of a new adventure- tomorrow I fulfill that dream of going to Ecuador and meeting my sponsor child, of seeing that beautiful and amazing country and its beautiful and amazing people.

And this process has been like grace unfurling around me, growing me and strengthening me and shedding light on things that I need to let go of and other things I need to hold to with all my might. Things like the truths I often say but still often find hard to believe on harder days, like God is always good or that He has not given me a spirit of fear. Things I need to grab hold of more, like the peace of God, faith that He will make a way, trust in His goodness.

Through an almost year process of determining if we should sell our home, listing it, and then taking it off the market again I kept hearing strongly in my heart, Wait. I knew this was meant clearly for our housing situation but I also know it has been the application to my whole life this past year and now is coming to fruition. Waiting for dreams to be made reality. Waiting for clear guidance on our home. Waiting on the Truth to settle in my heart and root out the lies. Waiting on healing. Waiting on that seed of hope to sprout and show me the new thing God is doing in me.

With full honest expression I can say that I have absolute peace about this trip and what will take place. My excitement has not spilled over to anxiety and the fears and doubts from a year ago when I first started to plan for it are no longer present. The peace of God is ruling in my heart, His grace unfurling to reveal His good plan for me. Like a cloud lifting, gone are the self-doubts and whispers of deceit.

What a glorious adventure this will be, an adventure all for His glory.

When You Are Not Quiet

Most people will call me reserved, quiet. I have not always been so, and am not always still. My friends and family that know me well know that I can at times be goofy and somewhat odd. This is my personality, and while most psychologists will say that personality remains fairly steady over a period of time, people can have developments of personality that cause change.

As I write this, I am sitting in a king-sized hotel bed, hoping to be lulled back to sleep before I have to check out in a few hours. I am alone and came five and a half hours away from my home in order to be alone and go to an event put on by an author I love and her friend. The event itself was only three hours long, but it was a great time to connect with other mothers, relax, and be pampered a little.

The author who spoke at this mini-conference discussed the topic of a gentle and quiet spirit. This Scripture no doubt has been the source of many mixed feelings and interpretations. I personally have heard it used as a mantra, a goal, and even used as a carelessly tossed out insult toward someone the speaker did not think fit the bill- yes even Scripture can be used to hurt people, unfortunately. And while I by no means consider myself an example of this verse, I often feel that maybe I am being judged a little more critically by others when I am neither gentle nor quiet.

And yet, here is the confession:

Sometimes, I am not gentle or quiet with my children.

Sometimes, I am not gentle toward my husband.

Sometimes, I am not quiet or gentle with my friends and family.

Sometimes, I don’t want to be those things.

Most times, I feel freer when I am not.

I like to dance and sing loudly with my children in the living room.

I like to challenge and rebut my husband in friendly banter.

I like to do something new and fun and maybe a little crazy with my friends and laugh a little too loud.

So when this author began to speak on this verse, I perked up. And what she said resonated with me and I felt the truth in her words.

The words gentle and quiet in these verses are also interpreted as undisturbed and established. When your life is in Christ, He gives you a spirit of gentleness and quietness. Your spirit is established and undisturbed in Him. Zephaniah tells us God will rejoice over us with singing and quiet us with His love. He establishes and makes us undisturbed by His love.

It’s not about the volume of your voice or the bigness (or smallness) of your voice. It’s about being rooted in Him, having a spirit that is in deep relationship with Him so that when the storms come, your spirit is quiet, calm. Undisturbed because you know Who He is.

What a freeing thing to know. I have always argued that God has given us all unique personalities, just as He has given us all unique minds, bodies, and souls. Why then would He tell us that we must all be quiet? Does He not say He rejoices with singing, and that He will one day descend from heaven with a shout? Why then do we think that we Christians (women specifically) must be quiet? It is because we take these words and interpret them in our modern context and subject them to our outward appearance even though the Scripture clearly states it is talking about the spirit.

Is your heart established in His love? Are you undisturbed by the trials because your eyes are focused on Him? Then you fit the bill of the verse. No matter how loud or big or wild or odd or silly your personality. Let it shine, because you are the light that shines the joy of the Lord.

 

Beyond Valentine’s Day

We may have been babes when we were married- well, there really is no denying that we were– but we were the only ones that didn’t know it. We thought we were old enough and wise enough and life would just be grand. We had known each other for so long already and it came as no surprise to anyone that we would get married. It was “meant to be,” so to speak.

And then came the four funerals in the first year of our marriage and the loss of our first baby at just six weeks old two years after. We were almost evicted from one apartment, worked two jobs each and were always broke, and had many other challenges that tried to rock us.

We were never perfect, never “always” kind, patient, forgiving. We never threw anything at each other or walked out on one another, but words and cold shoulders have been thrown. Yet we also have grown and fought for this love.

So when teenagers come to me and tell me they think they want to spend the rest of their life with another teenager and the parent looks imploringly at me, I just smile sheepishly. Because otherwise, what kind of hypocritical advice would I give? And then the teenager tells me all things that they did for Valentine’s Day, and I smile a knowing smile.

A hopeless romantic at heart, I love Valentine’s Day. So many of my friends and family do not, but I do. And while I am not one of those people that thinks they have to date their spouse, I do think you have to romance them. And Valentine’s Day is an excuse to do just that. It doesn’t have to be all about the superficial things- though I love flowers- but it never hurts to take the time to evaluate where we are. To slow things down over one dinner or late night talk to assess our marriage. We look back on things and laugh at our foolishness and discuss with deep sincerity our future endeavors.

We have come a long way in ten years of marriage, understanding more, now, how little we actually understand.

But I can still laugh when you come back early this morning with flowers and a Hello Kitty gift basket because even though I am almost thirty it is still one of my favorites. And you can laugh at my forgetfulness in asking for your help to unpack groceries and you unpack your chocolates.

And I’ll still decorate the dining room with pink and red hearts and wait like it’s Christmas morning for the kids to come down and get their treats.

We have a lot of growing left to do, a lot of life to live. But I will enjoy these Valentine moments with you, cherishing the traditions and embracing the changes as they come. Because no matter what the date on the calendar, we are in this together, and I could not love you more.

 

Fear Idol

I often find that I am a lonely person. Not in the sense of I have no one to talk to or that I don’t have any friends. I have a husband that takes the times to listen to me, to respond, and is committed to me. I have a core group of friends that I trust and a good relationship with my siblings. I have mentors who are friends, and am slowly making friends with people in my church.

Yet, there still is a place in me that has welled up out of fear. A place that creates these walls and makes it hard to break them down. I have been teased on many occasions that I need to open up more, to talk more about myself. This blog doesn’t count.

And I can’t help but wonder if this fear in me has created a place of sin. While reading through my oldest son’s Bible study curriculum it mentions how idols are anything that takes our desires and hearts away from God through pride or fear. I knew the pride part, had experienced it on my own many times and worked through it. But when I thought about the idol of fear and what that might look like, I realized it looked a lot like my reflection.

Fear that I am not going to sound “right” has been a cop out when I am with others and we are praying aloud. This has kept me from prayer.

Fear that I am not good enough as a mother to have kids that behave well enough. This has kept my children and me from activities.

Fear that I might be a little too odd, a little to awkward, to try to make friends, that I won’t be accepted. This has kept me from relationships.

Fear that if I am vulnerable and share a real need and not just something on the surface, that I might be too broken. This has hindered current relationships.

But what I learned this past week is that when you are vulnerable, when you dare to take a chance on your friends and show them a little bit of what is going on with you and your life and your crazy mind, they are not going to walk away from you. When you speak out in prayer those things that you seek, that you need and desire, they will stand with you. I have run from these things with the idol of fear in my hand, thinking I could never be that open. Past experiences remind me of the hurt that can occur when you are open and vulnerable with friends. But new experiences have taught me that when these friends are good and safe and true, it is okay. The judgment you feared was coming doesn’t. And maybe, just maybe, you can finally loosen the grip you have on fear, finally realizing that it is your grip on it and not its grip on you that has kept it around for so long. And you begin to do the things that were once so natural but have been hindered or stopped completely because of fear. You begin to take a chance again, to believe, to open up.

My theme this year is simplicity. Fear complicates things. It is time to let go of it, to lay that idol down and simplify my life with the pure and unconditional love of Christ, with the simple truth of the gospel, and with the simplicity of being with my friends as I am, without complicating it with walls and barricades. Because when I opened up, I no longer felt as lonely. I felt a simple hope rising up, encouraging me to press in when I feel like running. To let go of fear instead of waiting for it to let go of me.

The Simple Truth

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This year’s one word challenge is hard for me. I thought about the word almost in a begrudging way. It felt like one more thing I had to do before the year ended. It’s not like anyone was forcing me to do it, but I know when I have a goal or thing to accomplish I usually attend to it more and work toward it.

As I thought about why I felt this way- why I felt like I had to have a word, and why it was bothering me to add it to my to-do list, the word came. Like a quiet admonishment. Like something I knew I longed for but wasn’t sure how to get.

At the risk of sounding arrogant (or idiotic), simple things do not come easy for me. I always seem to take the hard way, put too much on myself, pushing and pushing toward something. I place responsibilities on myself, many of which are unnecessary, and overthink things ad nauseum. Often this adds to my anxiety, making me worse than better, compounding the feelings of being overwhelmed or wanting to hide away. It causes me to shut down, afraid to show my imperfections, because deep down I know many of them are of my own doing.

Take, for example, someone coming over to my house. I will clean and clean and fret and worry. I will try to make food that is not just good, but amazing, which all too-often makes for first time attempts at a recipe that may come out not as planned and then I disappoint myself. I want people to feel invited and welcomed in my home yet I cannot relax enough to allow myself to enjoy that they might just feel that way. I want to welcome and at the same time shield people from my flaws and cluttered spaces. After all, how dare I show I am human, right?

Or when I come to meet with a group of friends or just one friend how I feel myself having to mentally take down walls all over again because the idea of vulnerability is such a hard thing for me?

These are things I do to myself because sometimes, honestly, I just make life too complicated. For the sake of predictability I expend exhaustive amounts of time planning, preparing, and rehearsing. Blame it on my introversion, my INFJ melancholy personality, or just plain oddities of who I am. But either way, things get way over complicated in my mind and it spills out into my life.

So my word for 2017 is this: simplicity. An experiment in living Ockham’s Razor, if you will. Whichever is easiest, most simplistic, is the route I need to take. Instead of engaging in the rabbit hole of thinking that leads me to doubt relationships and feelings, choose the simplest path. Refuse to go down that rabbit hole. Purging the house and ridding it of unnecessary things so that it becomes easier to organize, easier to clean, and easier to host. Simple eating; good food that is good for me. Less spending on material objects and more time spent on the things that matter. Not worrying about fancy words and phrases but finally getting that story written down and let it tell itself.

Simplicity. It is a purposeful way of living. It is intentional. It is growing out of the unnecessary and stepping into the things that matter most. It is the renewing of the mind and resetting life to pull out of the mundane. To love people more and rid myself of false pretenses. To accept myself more and be okay with where I am and who I am. To not overwhelm myself and learn those boundaries and know when I have reached a limit. To be enough.

Plain and simple.

Beginning Advent

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When the sun comes up through the tall branches of the pine trees, Sunday awakens at my house. It is the first Sunday, the first day, of Advent. As a child, Advent meant nothing more to me than opening a little flap on a cardboard box that was filled with a plastic tray of little square chocolates. The dates were not entirely all that accurate either; no matter what we started on December 1st, with the culminating piece that was opened on Christmas Eve showing off a plump and cheerful picture of Santa.

I have passed this tradition on to my children, with my sister always being determined to deliver the calendars to her nieces on nephews each year, faithfully by December first. But even if she is a little late, they don’t mind as they can double up on the chocolates to “catch up.”

This was the extent of my understanding of Advent for many years. I remember a Sunday School teacher spending time on it, explaining the wreath and the candles and what each week signified, but unfortunately I was not paying as much attention back then or recognized the significance. It felt like something more traditional churches would do, as if it was only for someone who was perhaps Catholic or Methodist.

I read it about in people’s blogs years later, and saw ideas on Pinterest and people discussing the celebration. Still, I could not understand this idea of Advent; why were people waiting for Jesus’ birth when He had already come?

When I began to read more about it, to search for the meaning behind it and the purpose, I was surprised to find there really was a meaning to it, a purpose beyond plastic trays of chocolates or lighting candles. I saw that it was for everyone, not just the churches that were rooted in deep traditions already.

The more I saw the structure to it, the symbolism of it, the tradition of it, the more I began to think that this was something I wanted to teach to my children. I wanted them to see beyond the glittery decor and the presents and Santa, beyond the artificial magic we produce with stories of elves and wishes and Christmas miracles. I had told them the true meaning of Christmas, of the birth of Jesus and the angels singing and the shepherds and kings that came to visit that Babe in the manger, and they had nodded their little heads with eagerness, all the while eyeing the presents under the tree.

Last year we began to really participate in Advent, to learn of the prophecies of Jesus, of the many names by which He is called- Wonderful Counselor, Prince of Peace, and many others. We read in Isaiah of His coming, of God’s meticulous plan beginning in Genesis leading to the moment of Christ’s birth. As we read those passages, we were right there with those people, waiting for the Savior.

This year we have an actual book to help guide us, with traditional songs, activities, and the lighting of the Advent candles. Tonight we will join those who still seek Him, who have waited on Him for His birth in the Scriptures and those who now wait on His second glorious coming. We make the journey in our hearts, hearing the prophecy and seeing God’s plan in action. For four weeks we will study and grow and pray and wait. And the point at the end, at least for me, is to know how much like the innkeepers will I be? Will I have prepared Him room in my heart this season, or will I choke Him out of the meaning of the holiday we celebrate that is all about Him? Will the artificial magic reign supreme, or will I bow to His holiness and in the quiet recesses of my heart- and in my kids’ and husband’s hearts- surrender our love and life to Him?

My prayer this Advent, as we wait and hope, is for the children to understand the significance of Jesus’ birth, of the climactic scene of God coming down to Earth, equally man and equally God, borne a babe like us but dying and resurrecting as a Savior. Some traditions will not die- like the chocolate calendars- but I want my children to see beyond that, to see Him in it all, as we wait. And for them to revel in knowing that our waiting is only for celebration, as He has already come, but that others had to wait, not knowing when He would arrive, clinging to the promises of prophets of old. Our Savior has come; now we prepare our hearts once more to receive the miracle of Christmas.